Column: Rising stars in women’s tennis find a bumpy ride awaits them
Emma Raducanu set a modest goal at the start of her 2021 tennis season: win one round in the main draw of a Grand Slam event.
She obliterated that timetable by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon. She changed her life by winning the U.S. Open in September, capping a stunning journey from qualifier to champion without losing a set.
It was a dream come true at an absurdly accelerated pace, a wild ride that made the self-possessed Briton the sport’s newest darling at 18. Tiffany asked her to model its sparkly jewelry. Dior signed her to wear its high-end fashions. Evian water declared Raducanu the face of her generation.
But with the endorsements and social media cheers from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge came expectations that were utterly unrealistic for someone who had little experience with the grind of professional tennis. “I think everyone just suddenly expected me to win everything and clean up everything I played,” Raducanu said.
She won only two more matches in three tournaments the rest of the year, including a defeat in October at the pandemic-delayed BNP Paribas Open. She tested positive for the coronavirus in December, limiting her training for 2022. After that, she developed blisters and a hip injury that threatened to prevent her from competing at Indian Wells this year.
That’s why her joy came from a deep and genuine place Friday when she wrapped up a 6-1, 3-6, 6-1 victory over tricky Caroline Garcia of France at Stadium 1, only her second win this season. The crowd cheered as she powered through the third set and advanced to a third-round matchup with Petra Martic of Croatia on Sunday. “I think this one definitely meant a lot to me,” Raducanu said.
Rafael Nadal could barely walk six months ago because of his recurring foot problems, but this week he’s grateful to be in fine form at Indian Wells.
The expectations she created by winning the U.S. Open still exist, but she won’t let them smother her. She knows that few tournaments will be the thrill ride she experienced in New York and she’s putting in the work to stay at the top, cutting back non-tennis activities and building her days around training.
“I feel like now people are starting to realize, ‘It’s going to take some time for her to settle in,’” Raducanu said. “I feel like patience is a big thing. Once I settle in and go through all these highs and lows, I’ll find some sort of equilibrium.”
Stability has been elusive for other young women who have won Grand Slam singles titles in the last few years.
Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, who was 20 when she won the French Open in 2017, reached the Wimbledon semifinals in 2018 but hasn’t gotten past the third round of a Slam since then. She dropped out of the top 80 by July 2019 and only recently climbed back to No. 12. Bianca Andreescu of Canada, who was 18 when she prevailed at Indian Wells three years ago and 19 when she won the U.S. Open a few months later, has been plagued by injuries. In December she announced she would take a mental health break from the sport.
American Sofia Kenin was 21 when she won the Australian Open in 2020 and lost in the French Open final but she hasn’t gone past the fourth round of a Slam since. Unseeded here and ranked 130th in the world, she lost in the first round to Beatriz Haddad Maia of Brazil. Another American, 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens, ended a nearly four-year title drought by winning at Guadalajara last month. She then had the misfortune of drawing four-time Slam singles champion Naomi Osaka in the first round here. Osaka, who took time off last year to protect her mental health, won the last six games to seal the match.
Paula Badosa of Spain hasn’t won a Slam singles title but becoming the BNP Paribas Open champion last October added something to her life. “A lot of stress, to be honest,” she said. “I think if there’s a player that comes here and says that she’s not stressed, she’s lying. So don’t believe her.
“Of course, there’s expectations. You’re nervous. You’re the favorite now. You feel like maybe now you have to win as much matches as you can. Maybe the other players play better because they have nothing to lose, you know?”
Competing at the BNP Paribas Open, Ukrainian tennis player Dayana Yastremska doesn’t know when she’ll go home or when she’ll be reunited with her family.
Iga Swiatek of Poland, the 2020 French Open champion, is a rarity among the women who have recently won Slams at a young age in that she has maintained an upward trend. Swiatek, currently at a career-best No. 4 world ranking, won 12 of the last 13 games against Anhelina Kalinina on Friday to advance to the round of 32 on Sunday against Danish teen Clara Tauson.
Coco Gauff has been dealing with enormous expectations since she reached the fourth round at Wimbledon as a 15-year-old in 2019 and replicated her run in 2021. Gauff, who defeated Claire Liu of Thousand Oaks on Friday to set up a third-round match on Sunday against former world No. 1 Simona Halep, has a healthy perspective on her life and career.
“For me, honestly, it’s not really about on-court accomplishments. It’s more of how I’ve kind of accepted everything and tried my best to be a good role model for kids,” said Gauff, who will be 18 on Sunday.
Men’s tennis has been dominated by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer for two decades, though Daniil Medvedev broke through at the U.S. Open last year. Women’s tennis has become far less predictable. With 23-time Slam singles winner Serena Williams on the sidelines — she hasn’t competed since a hamstring injury led her to retire in the first round at Wimbledon last year — the Slams are up for grabs. No woman has won more than one Slam singles title in a calendar year since 2016, when Angelique Kerber won the Australian and U.S. Open championships.
Gauff, still evolving, appears on track to win her first Slam singles title in the next few years. Osaka, who said she’s focusing on improving on clay, is capable of winning many more Slams. So is Swiatek. And keep Raducanu in the conversation.
Before she walked to the court Friday she fist-bumped her compatriot and idol Andy Murray, who had just earned his 700th career victory. “Seven hundred wins is something I can just dream of,” Raducanu said. “I think I’ve won three now, so I have a long way to go.”
Keeping her goals modest could help her get there.
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