British No 1 Emma Raducanu was beaten in straight sets by 7th-seeded Coco Gauff at the Australian Open, 6-3 7-6(4), on Wednesday night in the headline act of the Rod Laver Arena night session, but she gave a good account of herself.
I think fans are eager to see a new face of the game. I think it's also a reminder, even if we didn't play tennis, we're just normal teenagers living our life. If we made a mistake, people would say, You're just 20, you're 18 years old, you can bounce back. I think people need to, kind of, relate that to tennis, as well. I think tennis is one of those sports, especially in the women's game, used to having young stars. Everybody is expecting everyone to be at the top of their game. Coco Gauff
The result followed the form book, given that the 18-year old American is ranked 7 in the world and the 20-year-old from Bromley is 77.
The difference, of course, is that Raducanu has won a Grand Slam title, the US Open in 2021, while Gauff reached the final of Roland Garros last year.
Raducanu also has been ranked as high as No 10 but after a first patchy year on tour, riddled with injuries and illness, plummeted downward and is looking to this season to regain the form that famously won her the title in New York as a qualifier.
An unlucky turn of the ankle in Auckland put Raducanu’s participation in Melbourne in doubt but she declared herself it and managed to beat Germany’s Tamara Korpatsch, 6-3 6-2, in the 1st-round to set up a meeting with Gauff.
It was the first meeting between the two, and the left ankle was certainly tested in the intense match that lasted an hour and 42 minutes.
Raducanu missed 2 set points at 5-4 in the second set, having rallied from 2-4 down, and Gauff went on to take the tiebreak 7-4, converting her 3rd match point.
“I just told myself to hang in there towards the end,” Gauff said on court. “I thought the whole match was great.
“We both started off rocky, but the match was good quality for the most part, considering the circumstances.
“I can imagine both of us were nervous, this was a long-anticipated match, basically, since the draw came out. So, I’m glad it was a good match.
“When you go into the tournament you have to beat the best. Obviously you hope it’s not the second round, but what can you do? I’m glad both of us handled the pressure pretty well.
“Kudos to Emma, I know she had a tough week in Auckland, so really good for her, for playing at this level after I guess such a scary moment.”
Gauff shone as the front-runner, serving for the set at 5-3, and managing to stave off 3 break-back points for Raducanu with brave, assertive ball-striking.
In fact, she saved 6 of 7 break points to stifle Raducanu’s momentum, winning the first set after 43 minutes.
“I think it was a tough match for me,” Gauff said. “The conditions, were a lot different from my first-round match, playing 11:00 in the day with the roof open to playing at night in heavy conditions.”
Another break for 2-1 in the second seemingly sent the World No 7 sprinting towards the finish line, but Raducanu had other ideas.
At 3-4 down, the Brit was striking the ball aggressively and freely, as she capitalised on some tentative play from the American to rip through 8 of 9 points to flip the script.
As Raducanu was building her come-back, Gauff did particularly well when playing off the back foot, while her variety on serve kept the Brit guessing, the American landing 72 per cent of first serves, and succeeding in 43 of 65 of those points.
Raducanu’s backhand proved the dangerous wing, with 10 of her 13 groundstroke winners coming from that side, and she earned herself 2 set points at 5-4, but a dinked drop-shot tipped the net to the Brit’s despair, and they rumbled into a tiebreak, where Gauff’s grit saw her escape in straight sets.
“It was really tough to, kind of, fight,” Gauff said. “In a lot of those points I was just trying to hang in there.
“For the most part, I think, I did well today. There’s no way you can go through a whole tournament playing every match perfect, so I think it’s all about being resilient when you need to.”
Gauff finished the match with 13 winners to 41 unforced errors, while Raducanu struck 17 winners to 42 miscues and finished with just 2 for 10 on break point chances in the match.
“She is a great mover, great athlete,” Raducanu said. “Puts another ball in play, so you feel like you have to squeeze it closer to the line, and then she kind of teases errors out of you that way.”
Gauff will face fellow-American Bernarda Pera next, who upset Zheng Qinwen, the 29th seed from China, 6-4 6-4, while Raducanu should see a rise in her ranking following her visit to Melbourne.
Later, in her post-match press conference, Raducanu explained that she and her team had had low expectations coming into Melbourne.
“13 days ago I would have, like, with what I had, to be in the draw right now is a massive, you know, effort and achievement,” Raducanu said. “I would say, like, all the chips were against us, and the chances of me playing this tournament were very, very low.
“So I had extremely limited practice time and, I think, I can say that now I’m not, like, competing anymore,” she added, laughing. “I think, 13 days ago, if you would have told us, like, Hey, you’re going to be in the draw and win a round, it would have been a massive effort for sure.
“Saying that, I still think I didn’t necessarily play my best today. Although, like, the second set I had chances and were pushing, it was still, I felt, like, I could have done better myself.
Raducanu was asked if she would like to play Gauff again, responding: “Yeah, I’d really like to play her again,” she said. “I think that, maybe, with more than five hours under my belt of practice!
“Yes, she’s a great opponent, and as I said in my previous press conference, I think that we’re going to be playing each other many times in the future as we’re both young and coming.
“You know, like, we’re going to be the next generation.”
At 18, Gauff is the youngest seeded player in the tournament, and has now won 7 consecutive matches to start her 2023 season, having opened her year with a dominant run to her 3rd career title at the ASB Classic in Auckland, losing just 22 games across 5 matches.
Gauff sympathises with Raducanu’s situation, highlighting how people tend to expect a lot more from younger stars.
“Yeah, I definitely feel for her. I guess I can kind of relate. I feel like she experienced it on a much bigger level than I did,” Coco Gauff said. “But coming in on tour young, it’s a different life from juniors, playing in smaller events, to all of a sudden people knowing your name, people expecting you to win all the time.
“For me, last year was my first full year on tour. I think last year was her first full year, as well. I think it’s something that people need to remember, and be reminded of,” she added.
“I think fans are eager to see a new face of the game. I think it’s also a reminder, even if we didn’t play tennis, we’re just normal teenagers living our life.
“If we made a mistake, people would say, You’re just 20, you’re 18 years old, you can bounce back.
“I think people need to, kind of, relate that to tennis, as well. I think tennis is one of those sports, especially in the women’s game, used to having young stars.
“Everybody is expecting everyone to be at the top of their game.
“I said this in a previous press conference. If you look at the top 10, everyone is at least 22, besides Iga, she’s 21. Everyone else is at least 22. I would say that’s probably prime for most athletes at that age.
“I think people need to remember that and put that in perspective,” she concluded.
“When you’re down a set and a break, it’s easy to throw in the towel!”