The question on most lips as Emma Raducanu returned to competition for the first time since her startling US Open victory was regarding exactly how she would adjust to her new status as a grand slam champion. With grand slam success inevitably comes increased, and often unwanted, expectation, as well a target on the back as players fight for the newest, biggest win.
In her first match as a grand slam champion at the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Raducanu, the 17th seed, was understandably unable to play with the freedom of a month earlier and she was defeated in the second round by surging Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus 6-2, 6-4.
“I think it’s going to take me time to adjust really to what’s going on,” she said afterwards. “I mean, I’m still so new to everything. The experiences that I’m going through right now, even though I might not feel 100% amazing right now, I know they’re for the greater good. For the bigger picture, I’ll be thanking this moment. So, yeah, that’s the lesson I think, that you can easily get sucked into being so focused on the result and getting disappointed. I mean, I’m 18 years old. I need to cut myself some slack.”
During her short time in Indian Wells, Raducanu had been one of the main attractions as the impact of her US Open run became clear. Before the second round match, fans lined up three rows deep just to watch Raducanu’s practice session and she was awarded the coveted night session in her first ever match at Indian Wells, headlining it ahead of established champions including Simona Halep and Petra Kvitová.
For a short while, she thrived. Raducanu opened up the match with a searing opening service game, holding serve to love with vicious shotmaking and winning five consecutive points. But as Raducanu continually attempted to maintain control of the exchanges and her spot on the baseline, her aggression was soon accompanied by inconsistent returning and a growing unforced error count.
Across the net, 27-year-old Sasnovich utilised all of her nous and experience, eking errors from Raducanu with bouts of scrappy, resourceful defence while smartly choosing her moments to unleash on her backhand. She broke serve for 2-1 and then ran with it, ending the opening set with a fitting demonstration of her sharpness. As Raducanu swept forward to the net to put away an easy forehand, Sasnovich anticipated correctly and deflected a tidy forehand lob over Raducanu’s head to take the set.
As the second set began, Raducanu took a step back and addressed her inconsistent play by happily lengthening points and targeting Sasnovich’s forehand. After falling down a break, Raducanu’s adjustment began to pay off as she won four of the following five games to lead 4-2. But just as she appeared to have taken control, Raducanu threw in a loose service game, netting a routine backhand to hand over a break. Raducanu became increasingly frustrated as the second set endured and she would not win another game as Sasnovich served out a routine victory to love.
Despite Raducanu’s understandable frustration with her inability to perform, ultimately this is a normal result. Indian Wells marked just Raducanu’s fifth career event at tour level and she is yet to win a WTA match or play a three-set match at this level. Her status may well be elevated as a result of her remarkable US Open win, but the reality is that she has so little experience to draw upon. At this point of her career, each loss is as valuable to her growth as her victories.
In her first big losing press conference of her career, Raducanu demonstrated ample self-awareness by continually underlining the experience she has to gain with each match. “I’m still very, very new to the tour,” she said. “I think that experience just comes from playing week in, week out and experiencing all these different things. I’m kind of glad that what happened today happened so I can learn and take it as a lesson. So going forward, yeah, I’ll just have more experience banked.”
The contest was also far more reflective of the depth in women’s tennis than Raducanu’s effortless breeze through the US Open draw. Although she is ranked 100th and has enjoyed an average year, Sasnovich is a former top 30 player who has multiple top 10 wins and even led Belarus to a surprise Billie Jean King Cup final in 2017. As with many top 100 players, in the right moment and with sufficient inspiration, she can topple many of the best players in the world. On Friday night, that is all she did.
“She’s been on tour, probably been 4-2 down like hundreds of times whereas I’ve been 4-2 up… It’s my third WTA tournament this year,” said Raducanu. “I mean, it will come in time. Just got to not rush it and keep going and get my head back to the drawing board, really.”