NEW YORK — When Emma Raducanu arrived in New York last year she could move around in blissful anonymity. She managed to lock herself away from the growing buzz around her by watching Formula One, listening to jazz and eating poke bowls in her hotel room during the tournament. Every night she’d walk to Times Square to get frozen yogurt.
Two weeks later, she was the US Open champion and a superstar, with her face on a billboard in Times Square.
The year since has been one of learning, battling through adversity and adjusting to life as one of the most famous sports stars on the planet. So it’s no surprise that it’s also been one of mixed performances on the court.
Her 2022 US Open campaign lasted just one round, as she fell to Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-3 in 1 hour 42 minutes on Louis Armstrong Court. She looked exasperated at times, struggling again with blister problems on her racket hand.
“With perspective, actually as a 19-year-old, I’ve not had a bad year,” Raducanu said soon after the defeat to Cornet. “To be top hundred, if you told me that a year ago, I’d take it. But, like, I think it would be nice in a way to kind of just start over, start fresh.”
At the beginning of the year, those close to Raducanu talked about how she’d need to take a few steps back to collect the experiences she skipped on her remarkable journey last year. And that’s how it has played out.
She has had to contend with injuries and an untimely bout of COVID, to navigate new surfaces and to play with a target on her back as a Grand Slam winner.
Prior to the US Open, Raducanu’s Grand Slam win-loss ratio was 12-17, with three second-round defeats this year. But within those top-line statistics lies a story of development and valuable experience.
“[This year] has been about building her match count and developing her resilience, which the sport requires,” Iain Bates, the LTA’s head of women’s tennis, told ESPN.
Bates says the ideal “match count” for a player Raducanu’s age is between 50 and 60. To date she has only managed to tally 30 matches due to frustrating injuries. And her year was already behind schedule before it started. She contracted COVID in December, which interrupted her pre-season calendar.
“It’s not easy to just make that time up later in the year, because the tour goes from week to week to week,” Bates says.
She lost at the Sydney Open in the first round, then got through the first round of the Australian Open only to lose to Danka Kovinic in the second. Her rhythm was disrupted by a sizable blister on her racket hand — meaning she was reduced to sliced forehands to try and take the pressure off the wound.
She then suffered a hip injury in February in Guadalajara, and had back problems from March until May. She also battled blisters on her foot which derailed her Billie Jean King Cup involvement in April.
Despite her lack of experience on clay, she managed to get through her first round at the French Open — her first time in the main draw at Roland Garros — as she overcame qualifier Linda Noskova. But she lost 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 to Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the second round.
A side strain disrupted her build up to Wimbledon, and she headed into the tournament with just seven games (not matches) on grass this year. Her participation was in doubt. She managed to get past the opening round threat of Alison Van Uytvanck — in her first ever match on Center Court — before losing to Caroline Garcia in the second.
That win over Van Uytvanck stays with Bates as a highlight of Raducanu’s year. “She went out and played a Center Court match, knowing that she was probably a little undercooked, and knowing that the minute she lost at Wimbledon this year she was in for — what’s the term? — a hard ride. The fact that she put herself out there and made herself vulnerable and won that match, well to me, that was absolutely exceptional.”
In the midst of the injuries and disappointments, she also tested out coaches.
She split from Andrew Richardson in the wake of her US Open triumph and turned to Torben Beltz back in December, but by April the two had gone separate ways. Bates took on the role on an interim basis for the clay court season. By the time Wimbledon came around she worked closely with one of her former confidants Jane O’Donoghue, but operated without an official coach. Ahead of the US Open she’s been working with Dmitry Tursunov, who has also coached Aryna Sabalenka and Anett Kontaveit.
The chopping and changing criticism received, but Raducanu responded in June, saying: “Personally, I think I know what I’m doing. I’m trusting what I’m doing and the work I’m doing. I’m still 19 and I’ve already won a Grand Slam so I can take my time and put things in place because I know my motivation isn’t any less.”
Bates had a guiding role in Raducanu’s year both as interim coach, but also in his role in the LTA. “If you have people around you that you know, you trust, you’re comfortable and confident with,” he said, “Then all of those things become stable and the norm. I’m hoping that this period of time with Dmitry goes well.”
Throughout the year, Raducanu has become one of the sport’s most sought-after commodities for eager sponsors. All of her sponsorship obligations and deals — which include Porsche, Tiffany & Co, Dior, Evian, British Airways, HSBC and Vodafone — are managed by her team at IMG with Max Eisenbud, who worked with Maria Sharapova and Li Na (whose photo Raducanu has as the lock screen on her phone).
At the start of the year they circled 18 potential days when she could fulfill those obligations, but she’s yet to hit that quota. She’s opted to keep media to a minimum as well.
Bates got insight into what Raducanu’s life is firsthand after her round of 16 exit in the Madrid Open. “That was the day Manchester City were playing Real Madrid in the semifinals of the Champions League,” Bates said. “There’s us walking through Madrid, doing the touristy things … and she is being stopped every couple of minutes by a Man City fan asking for a picture or whatever. She’s that famous that she transcends tennis. So she’s had to learn to live with that.”
Earlier this month, Raducanu managed to beat Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in consecutive matches at the Western & Southern Open — a breakthrough in this year of setbacks.
“I actually feel like I’m heading in a good direction again,” Raducanu said in Ohio. “I think that it is relieving, because I feel like I’m swinging with the same sort of freedom as I probably had, like, more like last year. And I did really enjoy this week, like if I made an error, it was almost like a positive thing, like, good, you are kind of going for it. It paid off a lot more than it didn’t.”
But here in New York, her first practice in front of the crowds at Flushing Meadows was frustrating, blisters once again forcing her to wrap her hands. “It’s just one of those weird days where you feel a bit like nothing … I don’t know. You just feel a bit out of it. Can’t really explain myself, to be honest. I’m sure everyone in this room has probably had a day like that. Yeah, it is what it is.”
Her first-round draw against Cornet was tricky. Cornet was playing in her 63rd straight Grand Slam and came into the US Open off a year packed with impressive results – like her run to the Australian Open quarterfinal, and victory at Wimbledon over world No.1 Iga Swiatek.
But as Raducanu was asked about her prospects for the tournament, she deflected away any notion of her being under increased pressure as the reigning champion.
“I think defending a title is just something that the press makes up. I’m just taking it one match at a time. Like, every single player is very capable in this draw. I just focus on what I’m doing, my own trajectory. As I said last year, I’m just going to do things my way.”
But it was inescapable: The wall of former winners on the flagpoles alongside the Plaza at Flushing Meadows all led to that image of her holding the trophy. In a fortnight, there’ll be someone else added to that line of champions.
Her priority for next year is to put consistent weeks of tennis together to build momentum and progression. She enjoyed the six weeks leading into the US Open and the development she saw in her game. Now comes the next chapter and there’s a side of her which — although devastated with surrendering her US Open crown — will relish the challenges ahead and navigating yet more fresh territory.
“I mean, obviously [it’s] really disappointing, really sad to leave here,” Raducanu said after the defeat. “It’s probably my favorite tournament. But also, I mean, in a way [I’m] happy because it’s a clean slate. I’m going to drop down the rankings. Climb my way back up. In a way the target will be off my back slightly. Yeah, I just have another chance to claw my way back up there.”