Analysis: US Open champion Raducanu shows poise at just 18

Sep 11, 2021, 10:18 PM | Updated: Sep 12, 2021, 10:24 am

NEW YORK (AP) — Emma Raducanu sat on her sideline chair at Arthur Ashe Stadium with her left knee, in her words, “gushing with blood.”

OK, maybe a bit of hyperbole there. Still, the 18-year-old from Britain had just hurt herself on a fall behind the baseline at a most inopportune moment: serving for the U.S. Open championship in only the second Grand Slam tournament of her nascent career.

When play resumed after a trainer cleaned and bandaged Raducanu’s cut, she was about to face a break point in Saturday’s final against 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez. This was after Raducanu already had wasted two match points in the previous game. Could have been a time to lose her focus, lose her way. To be overwhelmed by it all.

Instead, this is what Raducanu’s thought process was during that delay, a mindset that bodes well for the out-of-nowhere title winner at Flushing Meadows: “I guess I just went over and was really trying to think what my patterns of play were going to be, what I was going to try to execute. Going out there facing a break point after a two-, three-minute disruption isn’t easy. I think I managed for sure to really pull off the clutch plays when I needed to.”

Just as she did throughout her impressive trip to New York. Her 6-4, 6-3 victory over Fernandez — who had been playing well enough to beat defending champion Naomi Osaka and three other seeded women over the past two weeks — made Raducanu a star.

It also made her the first player in the professional era, which began in 1968, to go from the qualifying rounds at a major to the person clutching the trophy at the end. And the youngest female champion at a Grand Slam tournament since Maria Sharapova was 17 in 2004.

That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that Raducanu is destined to accumulate multiple major titles and climb to No. 1 in the WTA rankings, the way Sharapova did. There’s a long way to go for both of those achievements, although Raducanu will rise to No. 23 on Monday after beginning the season at No. 345 and the U.S. Open at No. 150.

Still, there is no denying the shot-making and the poise that allowed Raducanu to win 10 consecutive straight-set matches, three in qualifying, seven in the main draw. She uses an attacking baseline style, built on speed and anticipation, helped by a superb backhand and a topspin-heavy forehand that produced down-the-line winners to close the first set and the break that put her up 4-2 in the second against Fernandez.

Also propitious for Raducanu: the way she handled what happened at Wimbledon in her Grand Slam debut just a few months ago.

Despite having played merely one match on the professional tour — a loss — she got into the field thanks to a wild-card invitation from the All England Club and immediately made an impression. She went all the way to the fourth round before stopping during that match when she felt dizzy and had trouble breathing.

The next day, Raducanu said that “the whole experience caught up with me,” but also made this statement: “Last night will go a long way to helping me learn what it takes to perform at the top.”

Talk about a quick study.

Someone who only recently had finished her high school exams put everything aside after Wimbledon — the surge of attention, the ups and downs, the hard-for-her-to-accept mid-match retirement in front of a home crowd — and got right back to work.

“Wimbledon was such an incredible experience. Fourth round, second week, I couldn’t believe it. I thought: What a great achievement,” Raducanu said. “But I was still hungry.”

She went to the United States for the hard-court circuit that leads into the U.S. Open, playing in lower-tier events such as one in Landisville, Pennsylvania, with total prize money, for all entrants, of $100,000 (she collected $2.5 million on Saturday) and focused on her “craft,” as she put it.

“With each match and tournament and week, I think I’ve really built in terms of confidence, in terms of my game, in terms of my ball-striking. Everything came together today,” Raducanu said late Saturday, the silver trophy sitting on a table in front of her. “Yeah, I think to pull off some of the shots I did in the big moments, when I really needed it, was just an accumulation of everything I’ve learnt in the past five weeks.”

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Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Follow him at https://twitter.com/HowardFendrich or write to him at hfendrich@ap.org

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More AP tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Analysis: US Open champion Raducanu shows poise at just 18