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US Open: A year later, Raducanu hopes to be free again

Emma Raducanu hasn’t strung together three match wins on the bounce since repeating the “W” 10 times over exactly a year ago. As deep and compound as the factors behind it may be, the teen knows—rather simplistically—just where the missing puzzle lies: “I think I just need to swing.”

Pretty much what she did throughout last year’s US Open: swing for every shot like there’s no tomorrow. Except, a little over two weeks later, she found herself holding aloft the women’s singles trophy, completing the kind of fairy tale reserved for kids’ bedtime story books. Except, in this case, it was all too real: a 150th-ranked qualifier, having played just six WTA-level career matches leading up to the Slam, was the 2021 US Open champion at 18.

The swinging game in New York made the Canadian-born British player the talking (and selling) point in Britain. The swaying form though would soon follow; almost as rapidly as the rise.

In her first match back nearly a month after beating fellow teen Leylah Fernandez in the US Open final, Raducanu—who’d zoomed into the top 25 rankings—lost to a 100th-ranked opponent in straight sets at Indian Wells. That marked the beginning of a rough 12 months on the WTA tour for Raducanu, losing eight of her opening-round contests (including after a first-round bye) in the 17 tournaments she has competed in after the US Open.

In the 33 matches since, Raducanu lost more than she won (18 to 15). The only qualifier to flaunt a Grand Slam title in the Open Era hardly played like one in the Slams to come after; she lost in the second round of the Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon this year.

The extended lull after the sudden boom at Flushing Meadows was as much about Raducanu the inexperienced tennis pro as it was about Raducanu the young human.

“When you have such a life-changing experience, and I’m not talking about what happens on the court but everything else that gets added to that, even if she doesn’t change, people around you change,” former world No. 1 Kim Clijsters told Reuters. “People look at you differently. People on the tour look at you differently. Everybody knows her. Those big changes in life, they take time to kind of get used to.”

Not all those big changes were tennis related. The teen with a million-dollar smile was a brand’s delight. They latched on to her, and the millions began pouring in. In a Forbes list of the year’s highest-paid tennis players released on Thursday, Raducanu is sixth behind Roger Federer, Naomi Osaka, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. She has $18 million in off-court earnings apart from the $3.1 million from her on-court prize money, and multi-billion corporations ranging from Nike, British Airways, Dior, Evian, HSBC, Porsche, Tiffany and Vodafone have chosen to associate with her.

Raducanu was invited to fancy galas, Bond movie premiers, named BBC Sports Personality of the Year and appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. Her overnight-surging stardom and success graph, she admitted, did come with a steady learning curve.

“I’ve reached success way earlier than I ever really would have thought I did,” Raducanu said recently. “So I’m pretty proud of myself in that way. But it has been a tough year. I’ve definitely gone through and experienced a lot of challenges. I’ve learned a lot from all of it.”

That goes for her tennis too. Raducanu took four months into the new season to register two straight victories. Playing almost week after week at the elite level was still a novelty for Raducanu in her first full season on the WTA tour. The body, far from being used to it, kept breaking down. Raducanu retired mid-match in tournaments in Guadalajara (February), Rome (May) and Nottingham (June).

The teen kept letting go of her coaches—in the last year-and-a-half Raducanu has had three coaching splits—until she chose the path of largely training on her own. The swinging game also made way for a more restrained style of play, the no-fear attitude for a plenty-at-stake mindset. Raducanu’s tennis had now become more about not losing points rather than winning them.

“I kind of just got tired of pushing the ball around and having people hit the ball and they’d run me around,” Raducanu said this month. “I was just like, look, I have tried that for pretty much a year. If I’m going to lose, I’m probably going to lose anyway pushing the ball around at this level.”

So, she decided to swing again. And take down Serena Williams (6-4, 6-0) and Victoria Azarenka (6-0, 6-2) in Cincinnati, before losing to Jessica Pegula. But that was more the Raducanu of the 2021 US Open. The shots to generate winners hadn’t gone too far away; if you are to bagel Serena and Azarenka, you’d sure need plenty of them. The uncluttered mind had to be summoned again.

In the last tournament before her US Open title defence that begins against the seasoned Alize Cornet, the world No. 11 found that freedom in her mind and game. It’s made Raducanu, still only 19, feel more upbeat heading into the stage where she dazzled last year.

“I think it is definitely relieving because I feel like I’m swinging with the same sort of freedom as I probably had, more similar to last year. So it feels really good.”

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