HomeSportsTennisRaducanu and Murray defy age and expectation at Australian Open

Raducanu and Murray defy age and expectation at Australian Open

Just a few minutes before midnight in Australia, Emma Raducanu cast her racquet aside and let out a cathartic roar. The magnitude of this battling 6-0 2-6 6-1 victory over Sloane Stephens might pale against the heights of New York, but as her adrenaline subsided and even after the lights turned off around Melbourne Park, there was little to mask her relief.

Raducanu had endured a tumultuous build-up to her grand slam return, with two first-round exits sandwiching a change of coach and a positive Covid test that left her unable to practise for almost three weeks. But the resilient nature of her performance on Tuesday will breathe new life into expectations that had been met with another jolt of caution after the difficulty of her first-round draw was revealed last week.

This was a contest between two US Open champions: a star in Stephens who broke through at this tournament almost a decade ago; and another still shooting in its heady upwards trajectory. For all former’s recent inconsistencies, it always guaranteed to be a significant and gruelling test.

For a while, though, it seemed that challenge might never arrive. After waiting deep into the evening to step out onto Margaret Court Arena, Raducanu blitzed through the first set in barely more than a quarter of an hour. Her ball-striking was assured and emphatic, dragging Stephens across the baseline with power and surgical precision, and the nerves that gripped her second serve in last week’s warm-up event had dissipated.

It was a more spectacular start than anyone had dared to imagine, only made easier by Stephens’ multitude of errors. The 27-year-old was playing her first competitive match in over two months and the rust showed as her rhythm erred and she remained hesitant in longer rallies.

That had, of course, been as much a credit to Raducanu’s constant pressure. But in the second set, the pair’s roles seemed to reverse in an instant. Raducanu’s opening service game in itself lasted 15 minutes as Stephens found her length, swung freely, and pushed Raducanu deep behind the baseline. Eventually, the 19-year-old succumbed under the pressure, snatching at shots during rallies, her composure bleeding into frustration as she was broken three times to set up a deciding set.

At that point, with the momentum firmly on Stephens’s side of the court, any ordinary player might have feared the worst. But what Raducanu has already proved in striking abundance is that such duress has only hardened her resolve. She broke Stephens twice in the final set as the American receded back into a pattern of errors. There was a slight tension as she attempted to close out victory, becoming more passive in rallies and surviving a scare at deuce at 4-0, but that much was inevitable under the weight of the circumstances. It might have only been the first round, but amid a difficult run-up to the tournament and Raducanu’s urgency to establish that her feats in New York were never guided by fluke, this win unmistakably represented far more than just that.

“I’m really happy to come through against a great champion like Sloane,” she said afterwards. “It was a tough match-up for a first round, her athleticism is really up there – I was working really hard to win points. I’m just so happy to come through it. In the third set, I was really feeling it – the scoreline didn’t really reflect the game.”

Raducanu will now face Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic in the second round and the world No 98 should, at least on paper, fail to pose a threat like the Briton endured here. But to come through that jeopardy will have provided the best form of preparation for what lies ahead if Raducanu is to go far again. After all, in the third round, she is projected to face two-time grand slam champion Simona Halep, who cruised to a far more comfortable victory over Magdalena Frech earlier on Tuesday. The likes of Aryna Sabalenka, Garbine Muguruza and Iga Swiatek all secured their place in the second round, too, although Raducanu’s fellow teenage opponent in that New York final, Leylah Fernandez, and Petra Kvitova were at the wrong end of notable upsets.

But while Raducanu’s star continues to rise, it was more of a case of the dogged old spirit that refuses to be beaten in Andy Murray. Two years after being ushered towards retirement in Melbourne, the 34-year-old was again squeezing every last drop from his injury-ravaged, titanium-reinforced body in a marathon five-set match against Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili.

The Scot, who received a wildcard entry into the main draw, also seemed set to cruise to victory after taking the first set 6-1 but was dragged into deep waters over the course of four enervating hours on John Cain Arena as the ascendancy was shunted back and forth. The toll of Murray’s performance and how deep into his stubborn reserves he has delved will no doubt be revealed in aches and pains overnight, but he has also benefitted from a kinder draw in the second round, against Japanese qualifier Taro Daniel, and stressed his hopes of mounting a serious challenge.

“This is the one where I thought I’d potentially played my last match three years ago but it’s amazing to be back and winning a five-set battle like that, I couldn’t ask for any more,” he said. “I would love to have a deep run here if possible. I have not had that at one of the slams since I came back from injury and it’s something that’s motivating me. I have played some of my best tennis here over the years, I feel comfortable here and I hope I can do it this tournament.”

Even in Novak Djokovic’s absence, the next generation cohort remains an imposing obstacle to clear. Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Andrey Rublev all eased into the second round with commanding straight-set victories, but perhaps the biggest cheers of the day were reserved for Nick Kyrgios. The ever-enigmatic Australian played conductor to a raucous atmosphere, exhibiting his full repertoire of trick shots, rhetorical conversations and impenetrable serving. For Liam Broady, who went the long route through qualifying to reach the main draw, that arsenal proved a weapon too great on an otherwise triumphant day for British tennis.

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