Arriving at the US Open site in a tournament courtesy vehicle for the first time this year, Emma Raducanu was struck by the memory that hit her from last year’s last trip to Flushing Meadows: the ride to Arthur Ashe Stadium on the morning of the final against another unseeded teenager, Leylah Fernandez.
"I felt so car sick. I just blamed it on being 'car sick,' but I think I was a bit nervous, too. The whole car journey, my head was in my hands. I was, like, ‘What’s going on?’" said Raducanu, who is seeded 11th this time and will begin her title defense in Louis Armstrong Stadium against Alize Cornet at night on Tuesday, Day 2 of the hard-court Grand Slam event.
"As soon as I got out of the car,” the British player said, “I just promised myself, ‘Look, you just fake it. Do whatever you can.’ And it worked well that day.” In the 50 weeks since culminating her out-of-nowhere run — age of 18, rank of No. 150, her second appearance at a major, the only person to go through qualifying rounds along the way to becoming a Slam champion — Raducanu has dealt with the challenges presented by sudden success in tennis.
She’s cycled through one coach after another (Dmitry Tursunov is with her in New York). She’s lost in the second round at each major in 2022. Her record since last year’s US Open is 15-18.
Kim Clijsters’ remark
Kim Clijsters, who lost the 2001 French Open final the day after her 18th birthday and would wait more than four years until winning her first Grand Slam title, recalled what was on her mind while watching Raducanu’s big moment in New York.
"There’s like a little mother instinct that kicks in, a sort of worry about: ‘OK, hopefully she can keep it all under control. And hopefully England doesn’t go too crazy. And hopefully she can focus on her development.’ Because it was all so unusual, right? Normally you see players kind of gradually work their way up the rankings," said Clijsters, now 39 and a parent.
"It’s a different process that she’s going through. How quickly your life changes. Not just your life, but also people around you change. It’s so much to take with you and to learn." But Clijsters, who finished with four major trophies and was appointed honorary president of the International Tennis Hall of Fame this week, is not concerned about Raducanu’s future.
It’s early, of course, and there is plenty of time for her to adjust and adapt and add to her accomplishments. "People ask me about her and they think it’s the end of the world what she’s going through right now. She’s 19. She’s fine. She’s a hard worker, wants to keep improving. It’s good to just let her develop, because winning the U.S. Open doesn’t mean that she’s going to be in the semis or later of every Grand Slam onwards,” Clijsters said.
“It’s almost like that was a peak and now it’s back to the process." Figuring out how to handle the exponential increase in distractions and demands on one’s time can be key for an athlete who becomes a star overnight. That’s all the more daunting when someone isn’t even yet 20.
More harder for young players
Martina Hingis was 16 when she won the first of her five Grand Slam singles titles at the 1997 Australian Open, and thinks it’s even harder for young players these days.
"There are so many challenges now, with social media and so much more show business. They have to go back to their roots,” Hingis said. “She built her momentum at the US Open, but now she lost it a little bit... Emma should really regroup and maybe go back to the coach who got (her) there. She’s been trying to look for new things." It’s only natural for anyone who’s won one championship to crave a second.
And, as Clijsters notes, fans seem to be waiting for that, too. “From one second to the next, you’re the ‘new player to watch’ and the ‘player to beat.’ Everyone expects you to play well all the time and to win all the time,” said Mary Pierce, whose first Grand Slam title came at age 20 at the 1995 Australian Open, second at the 2000 French Open at 25.
"Just the pressure and the expectation and all of the demands that come from the outside — the interviews, the TV appearances, the photo shoots, the events — those things take your time. They take your energy.” Raducanu bristles at the suggestion she faces pressure.
When that word was used by a reporter at Raducanu’s pre-tournament news conference in New York, the reply was: “You guys are thinking probably more about pressure and ranking than me. I think defending a title is just something that the press makes up.”
Which brought to mind what Raducanu said after her loss at Wimbledon in June: “There’s no pressure. Like, why is there any pressure? I’m still 19. Like, it’s a joke. I literally won a Slam. Yes, I have had attention. But I’m a Slam champion, so no one’s going to take that away from me. Yeah, if anything, the pressure is on those who haven’t done that."