Back on Track

Back on Track

Three years after her victory at the US Open, Emma Raducanu is still in pursuit of a normal season as she heads into Wimbledon.

Three years after her victory at the US Open, Emma Raducanu is still in pursuit of a normal season as she heads into Wimbledon.

By Giri NathanJune 28, 2024

Emma Raducanu is all smiles after defeating Jess Pegula at Eastbourne. // AP

Emma Raducanu is all smiles after defeating Jess Pegula at Eastbourne. // AP

Some people’s lives, or at least tennis careers, seem to arrive all out of order. In a vacuum, how would you chronologically sequence the following events in someone’s career?

A. Win the US Open
B. Enter the top 20 for the first time
C. Hire a sixth coach after firing five in a two-year span
D. In a meaningful sign of progress, beat the world No. 274 and world No. 127 in Nottingham to rise into the top 200
E. Win first-ever set against a top 10 player

I’d probably go with D, E, B, A, C for narrative coherence. But for Emma Raducanu, the answer is exactly the jumbled order you see above. She did claim the 2021 US Open as a teenage qualifier, and she did only enter the top 20 a few weeks after that title. And then over the next two years, she did cycle through a whole roster of coaches while coping with constant injuries and surgeries that pulled her out of the top 300, to such a degree that it was a genuinely positive sign for her to log consecutive wins against modest competition at Nottingham last week. And then her win over Jess Pegula in Eastbourne on Wednesday was—surprisingly—the first time she had taken one set off of a top 10 player, let alone a victory. (If you’ll recall, during that 2021 US Open, it was the other surprise teenage finalist, Leylah Fernandez, who eliminated all those seeded players in spectacular three-setters. Raducanu did defeat Maria Sakkari and Belinda Bencic, who were top 10 in the singles race at that point but were not technically top 10 players due to some COVID-era rankings weirdness.)

Three years after her major victory, Raducanu is arguably still in pursuit of a normal season as a professional, something that could fit in the yawning expanse between “winning 10 matches in a row to claim a US Open title as an 18-year-old qualifier” (2021) and “missing six months of tour due to surgeries on her ankle and both wrists” (2023). Something straight down the middle, like “top 30 player who competes on tour most weeks,” a standard she is surely talented enough to achieve. She might be discovering that normalcy as we speak. She entered the year ranked just outside the top 300 and since then has received a few wild cards, remained decently healthy, picked up some inspired wins, and played one extremely competitive tiebreak set against Iga Swiatek on clay. (That’s a lot more traction than most of Iga’s victims over the past few months can boast.) Raducanu’s clay season ended early, though, as she was too fatigued to play in Rome and didn’t receive a wild card to the main draw at Roland-Garros; she decided to skip out on qualifying, pull out of the Olympics, and prep for the other surfaces instead.

So far that’s looking like a sound decision. She’s won five matches on grass, plus a walkover. Two weeks ago she made the semifinals at the 250 in Nottingham, narrowly losing to the eventual champion Katie Boulter. This week in Eastbourne, Raducanu blew away Sloane Stephens and managed to beat Pegula in a knotty three-set comeback that saw her erase one match point in the second set and attempt to serve for the match three separate times. Later Raducanu described the victory over a newly in-form Pegula, who just won a grass title in Berlin, as one of the most meaningful of her career. These past few weeks have served as a reminder of how fundamentally solid Raducanu’s baseline game is, that exceptional movement and balance and timing on the ball. She wasn’t able to put much of that skill to use in Eastbourne on Thursday, when she was pitted against Daria Kasatkina in ultra-windy conditions. Raducanu often seemed to be lashing away while off-balance; Kasatkina, meanwhile, has hands so good that she’d be the favorite on any blustery day demanding constant last-second adjustments, and she won 6–2, 6–2.

“Yesterday [against Pegula] it was a much better level of tennis because conditions suited it better. It was just more clean ball-striking,” Raducanu said afterward. “Today it was the complete opposite. It was more about the scrappy little shots that are dying. The slower you actually hit the ball today, the more difficult it was to deal with, because it would just hold in the air and move and cut with all the spin.” On the whole, though, she said she was happy with her performance and her physical recovery from three straight days of tennis. She’s in the best stretch of her career since her US Open victory and will hop up some 33 ranking slots to No. 133 next week. Now she heads to Wimbledon, the tournament where she first broke out three years ago with a shock fourth-round appearance, and where perhaps she can continue to assemble a more straightforward and sustainable future.

The Hopper

—The Wimbledon seeds are out. and somehow Novak is one of them.

Nobody is playing the Olympics, it seems.

Tara Moore bounces back.

—Defector’s Owen Lewis despairs about the state of tennis highlights.

—Garbiñe Muguruza has been named the Riyadh tournament director.

—From the Guardian: Life at the Bottom

—A look at grass court tournaments of yore.