NEW YORK – As a British tennis player Emma Raducanu Arriving in New York last year, she was able to move about in blissful anonymity. She managed to isolate herself from the growing hustle and bustle by watching Formula 1, listening to jazz and eating poke bowls in her hotel room during the tournament. Every night she went to Times Square to get frozen yogurt.
Two weeks later she was the US Open Champion and superstar, with her face on a Times Square billboard.
The year since has been one of learning, battling adversity and adjusting to life as one of the world’s most famous sports stars. No wonder, then, that there were mixed performances on the pitch.
she The 2022 US Open campaign lasted just one roundhow she fell Alize Cornet 6-3, 6-3 in 1 hour, 42 minutes on Tuesday at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Raducanu looked annoyed at times and again struggled with bladder issues on her racquet hand.
“Prospectively, actually as a 19-year-old, I didn’t have a bad year,” said Raducanu shortly after the defeat against Cornet. “To be top 100 if you told me that a year ago I would take it. But I think it would be nice to just start over, start fresh.”
Earlier in the year, those close to Raducanu spoke about taking a few steps back to gather the experiences she missed on her remarkable journey last year. And that’s how it worked.
She’s had to deal with injuries and a premature COVID bout, navigating new surfaces and playing with a goal on her back as a Grand Slam champion.
Ahead of the US Open, Raducanu’s Grand Slam win-loss ratio was 12-17, with three second-round losses this year. But within those top-line stats lies a history of development and valuable experience.
“[This year] It was about increasing her match count and developing her resilience, which the sport demands,” Iain Bates, director of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), told ESPN.
Bates said the ideal “game number” for a player Raducanu’s age is between 50 and 60. To date, she has only managed to tally 30 games due to frustrating injuries. And her year was already behind schedule before it began. She fell ill with COVID in December, interrupting her preseason calendar.
“It’s not easy to catch up on that time later in the year because the tour is week-to-week-to-week,” Bates said.
Raducanu lost in the first round at the Sydney Open and then got through the first round of the Australian Open only to lose Thank you Kovinic in this second. Raducanu’s rhythm was disrupted by a sizeable blister on her racquet hand – meaning she was reduced to slashed forehands to try to take pressure off the wound.
In February she suffered a hip injury in Guadalajara and had back problems from March to May. She also battled blisters on her foot derailing her involvement in April’s Billie Jean King Cup.
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 qualification Linda Noskova. But Raducanu lost 3-6, 6-1, 6-1 against Aliaksandra Sasnovich in the second round.
A side strain disrupted Raducanu’s preparation for Wimbledon, and she went into the tournament this year with just seven games (not games) on grass. Her participation was doubtful. She managed to overcome the danger of the opening round Alison van Uytvanck – in her very first match on Center Court – before losing to her Caroline Garcia in this second.
This victory over Van Uytvanck remains a highlight of Raducanu’s year for Bates:
“She went out and played a center court match knowing she was probably a little overcooked and knowing that the minute she lost at Wimbledon this year she was going to have a rough ride. The fact that she put herself out there and made herself vulnerable and won that match, well, to me that was absolutely extraordinary.
Amid the injuries and disappointments, Raducanu also tested coaches.
She split from Andrew Richardson after her US Open win and turned to Torben Beltz in December, but by April the two had gone their separate ways. Bates temporarily took over the role for the clay-court season. When Wimbledon came around, Raducanu worked closely with one of her former confidants, Jane O’Donoghue, but operated without an official coach. Before the US Open, she had worked with Dmitry Tursunov, who was also a coach Arina Sabalenka and Anett Kontaveit.
The hacking and switching drew criticism, but Raducanu responded in June, saying: “Personally, I think I know what I’m doing. I trust what I do and the work I do. I’m still 19 and I’ve already won a Grand Slam, so I can take my time and fix things because I know my motivation isn’t any lower.”
Bates has played a leading role in Raducanu’s year, both as caretaker coach and in his role with the LTA.
“When you’re around people that you know, that you trust, that you’re comfortable and safe with,” he said, “then all of those things become stable and become the norm. I hope this time with Dmitry goes well.”
Over the year, Raducanu became one of the sport’s most desirable players for eager sponsors. All of her sponsorship engagements and deals – including Porsche, Tiffany & Co., Dior, Evian, British Airways, HSBC and Vodafone – are managed by her team at IMG with Max Eisenbud who she has worked with Maria Sharapova and Li Na (whose photo Raducanu has as the lock screen on her phone).
Earlier in the year, they circled 18 potential days when she could fulfill those commitments, but she has yet to hit that quota. She has also opted to keep media commitments to a minimum.
Bates got a first-hand look at Raducanu’s life following their knockout round elimination at the Madrid Open.
“That was the day Manchester City played Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals,” said Bates. “There we go walking around Madrid, doing the touristy things… and she gets stopped every few minutes by a Man City fan asking for a picture or whatever. She is so famous that she goes beyond tennis. So she had to learn to live with it.”
“I actually feel like I’m heading in a good direction again,” said Raducanu in Ohio. “I think it’s a relief because I feel like I’m swinging with the same freedom that I probably had, more like last year. And I’ve really enjoyed this week like if I made a mistake it was almost like a positive thing how good you kinda make it. It paid off a lot more than it didn’t.
But here in New York, she said her first workout in front of the crowd at Flushing Meadows was frustrating, with blisters forcing her to wrap her hands again:
“It’s just one of those weird days when you feel a little bit like nothing…I don’t know. You just feel a little beside yourself. Can’t really explain myself to be honest. I’m sure everyone in this room probably had a day like this. Yes, it is what it is.”
Her first-round draw against Cornet was difficult. Playing in her 63rd consecutive Grand Slam, Cornet arrived at the US Open after a year of impressive results, including her run to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and her win over world No. 1 at Wimbledon Iga Swiatek.
But when asked about her prospects for the tournament, Raducanu brushed off any notion that she would be under increased pressure as reigning champions.
“I think defending the title is just something the press is making up,” she said. “I just take it one game at a time. Every single player is very capable in this draw. I just focus on what I’m doing, my own trajectory. Like I said last year, I’m just going to do things my way.”
But it was inevitable: the wall of past winners hanging from the flagpoles beside the plaza in Flushing Meadows led to this picture of her with the trophy. In a fortnight, someone else will be added to this line of champions.
Her priority for the next year is to tie consistent tennis weeks together to build momentum and progression. She enjoyed the six weeks leading up to the US Open and the development she was seeing in her game. Now the next chapter is coming and she said there is a side of her that – while devastated at giving up her US Open crown – will enjoy the challenges ahead and navigating even more uncharted territory.
“I mean obviously [it’s] really disappointing, really sad to leave here,” Raducanu said after the loss. “It’s probably my favorite tournament. But also, I mean, in a way [I’m] happy because it’s a clean slate. I will drop the leaderboard. Climb my way back up. In a way, the target will be a bit off my back. Yes, I only have one more chance to fight my way back up.”