As one of the most unexpected recent breakout seasons came to an end in November, Emma Raducanu seemed to have built a solid base for the new year. After the grand slam success, the first round of new endorsements, the questions over her coaching choices and the predictable dip in form as her life changed for ever, Raducanu closed off her year by hiring an experienced, well-regarded coach, Torben Beltz, to guide her through her next steps of her young career.
With the off-season beckoning, Raducanu frequently spoke about her goal of improving her physical strength and fitness in order to address the gap between herself and the chiselled, grown athletes she will now face every week. As she navigates so many first-time experiences under a glaring spotlight, a complicated second season was always on the cards but Raducanu had positioned herself well.
However, not everything can be accounted for. In the middle of December, Raducanu tested positive for Covid-19 before she was due to compete in an exhibition in Abu Dhabi. While she was one of a number of players to contract Covid then, her recovery has seemingly taken the longest. Rafael Nadal won a title in Melbourne a few weeks later, Denis Shapovalov was back in action shortly afterwards. Raducanu, meanwhile, says it took 20 days until she began training at a decent intensity and she is still pacing herself back to full fitness.
“It’s a challenge to try and find the balance of wanting to get out there and practice so much straight after coming out of isolation, but if you ever do it with the hours after not doing anything for 20 days, you always start picking up small niggles,” she said during the Australian Open media day on Saturday. “I’m just trying to find that balance.”
Thus, Raducanu arrives at her Australian Open debut in far from ideal circumstances. Last week she competed for the first time in the new season and was hit clean off the court by the immensely talented Elena Rybakina in Sydney, losing 6-0, 6-1 in less than an hour. “The first week I wasn’t able to practise so much,” she said. “But after Sydney, the match, it was just good to see where I was at that point in time.”
This coming week will mark another new experience for Raducanu. The only other time she has competed in Australia was as a 16-year-old junior in 2019 and she lost in the first round of the junior Australian Open. In her senior debut this year, she will contest a headline match against Sloane Stephens in a battle of two US Open champions. At 14, Raducanu was watching as Stephens won her title in 2017 and the pair have hit together in the past. If the various posters of Raducanu across the grounds are any indication of her favour with the organisers, they will do battle on one of the stadium courts.
The path that Stephens has taken in her career underlines how little guarantee there is of sustained success after one grand slam title. Stephens is one of the talents of her generation, blessed with supreme athleticism, one of the heaviest forehands in the sport and a relatively complete game, and she is still capable of achieving even more. But her time at the top of the game so far, although brilliant, was fleeting. She is now ranked 68th and, although there have been recent glimpses of promise, Stephens remains extremely inconsistent. She is just as capable of rising to the moment and picking off any opponent in the world as she is of throwing in a lethargic, uninspired performance to nobody at all.
After indicating that she remains a fair distance from the height of her physical abilities, Raducanu says she is approaching this match calmly and feels no pressure on her shoulders for the coming week. “I feel like I’m just happy to be here and have a swing,” she said. “I had to jump a few hurdles to play here, so I’m very – just want to go out there and have fun and enjoy on the court.”
This is the beginning of a new season for Raducanu, one that will reveal plenty about her game and character, but also one that will require patience as she learns the ropes of professional tennis under pressure. It will be instructive to see if, when and how she finds her feet. In the meantime, patience will be an essential quality, which she says she is still working on.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” she says. “Whether that’s practice, whether that’s off the court, I want to be the best I can all the time. Sometimes it’s just not very viable. I think that’s one thing, I need to just relax. As long as the trend is trending upwards, just a matter of small fluctuations, I think I can be proud.”
In the build up to the Australian Open, Nike released a typically slick commercial featuring Raducanu. As she stood from the baseline and attacked balls, words flashed behind her: “distracted”, “fluke”, “one-hit wonder”. In a few fleeting months, and with only four tournaments played, the discourse surrounding Raducanu has notably soured.
One of the keys to success will be in the ethos of that video; blocking out noise, focusing on herself and understanding that consistent work will yield success even if it takes some time. Asked about her opinion on the subject on Saturday, Raducanu smiled. “I think the video speaks for itself,” she said. “Yeah, that’s how I feel. That’s it, full stop.”