Fans held their breath as reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu took to Margaret Court Arena on Tuesday night against former US Open title holder Sloane Stephens, and then let it out as the British teenager stormed through the first set, looking every inch the player that hoisted the trophy in New York in September.
I am happy to have regrouped, and again in the third set I don't think the score really reflected the level out there, because I was really feeling it, and just focusing on trying to get every single ball in, landing in between the lines. Emma Raducanu
19-year old Raducanu slumped somewhat since her meteoric run in the Big Apple, and while much has happened to her since then, including employing a new coach, many have worried about the pressures on her young shoulders.
Nevertheless, interest in Raducanu’s progress remains high, as Sir Andy Murray exemplified with a Tweet after noticing that both channels were showing a men’s match from Rod Laver Arena: “Come on channel 9 let’s get raducanu stephens on one the channels instead of 2x Rod Laver!”
Moments later, his demand was satisfied as Channel 9 began broadcasting from the MCA.
On her Australian Open debut, only the 3rd Grand Slam event of her fledgling career, Raducanu dominated Stephens, losing just 4 points in the opener, including a double-fault, before the American found her range in the second.
At that stage she had struck 7 winners to Stephens’ zero, and committed just 2 unforced errors to her opponent’s 8.
Stephens, of course, is no push-over, and the draw looked a tough one for the teenager from Bromley, but the Brit rose to the occasion, surviving second set adversity before changing gears and romping through the decider to emphatically win, 6-0 2-6 6-1, after an hour and 45 minutes.
“I just want to thank everyone for coming and staying so late, I really appreciate it,” Raducanu said after her win. “I think me and Sloane really put everything out there, we gave it all we had.
“It was a really high-quality match with some very long rallies, so I am very happy to have come through against such a great champion like her.
“I think it was a tough match-up really for a first round.
“I knew there were going to be some very long rallies and her athleticism is really up there, so I was having to work extremely hard for my points, but I am so happy to have got through.”
The flawless opening set took a mere 17 minutes of blistering tennis from the British No 1, and the first sign of real resistance from Stephens came in the opening game of the second, during which she won over double the number of points she had in the first and which, at 12 minutes, lasted nearly as long.
Attacking the Raducanu second serve and moving with more energy, Stephens sealed the break, thanks to consecutive double-faults from the teenager, but the game set the tone for the rest of the match.
Stephens had struggled to read Raducanu’s patterns of play in the first set, but managed to extend rallies to superb effect in the second.
Several of those exchanges were particularly absorbing in terms of the tactical battle, as both sought to remain a step ahead of the other with their changes of direction and pace.
As the set drew on, Stephens was more likely to come out on top, drawing 19 unforced errors from Raducanu, and levelling the match with a forehand winner, her 9th of the day.
Both took comfort breaks, now shortened to just 3 minutes, and Raducanu returned enlivened.
In the decider, she adjusted superbly, playing with patience and placement as she constructed points meticulously, ranging from the low balls that repeatedly outdid Stephens at net to the well-timed changes of direction down the line.
Punishing the Stephens second serve also paid dividends, with 2 booming backhand returns sealing the double break for 4-0.
Seeking a second bagel set of the day at 5-0, Raducanu set up 2 passing shots perfectly, only to miss the finishing touch, but she served out the win with little trouble, ending a 17-shot rally with a flicked crosscourt drop-shot on her 3rd match point.
Later, in her post-match press conference, Raducanu admitted she had found the the final set physically demanding.
“I am very pleased,” she said. “I think I played some very good tennis in the first set with very few unforced errors.
“Of course there was going to be some adversity, she was edging through the long rallies with her defence.
“I am happy to have regrouped, and again in the third set I don’t think the score really reflected the level out there, because I was really feeling it, and just focusing on trying to get every single ball in, landing in between the lines.”
Both came into the match somewhat undercooked, Raducanu after a recent battle with COVID-19 and Stephens, now ranked 67, following her wedding to footballer Jozy Altidore on New Year’s Day.
In fact, this was the American’s first match of 2022, and Raducanu’s second, and although the 28-year-old was the more experienced, having reached her first Grand Slam semi-final at AO 2013, she has now lost in the first round in 6 of her last 7 appearances here in Melbourne.
Raducanu knew how important the start of the deciding set was, and she gave a gritty fist pump after holding serve in the first game.
She broke Stephens to lead 2-0 and then overcame an embarrassing moment when she thought she had won the next game, only to be told by the umpire that it was in fact 40-15.
Stephens’ heart for the fight began to ebb away and, although she avoided the second bagel, a netted backhand gave Raducanu victory.
“In the first set I played some great tennis with very few errors,” Raducanu said. “Of course there was going to be some adversity and I was happy to regroup in the third set.
“I don’t think the score reflected the match really as I was really feeling it.”
Grand Slams aside, the 19-year-old had not won more than 2 matches at a main WTA Tour event in this her first full-time on tour, and she had endured a chastening loss to Elena Rybakina last week in Sydney, but with this win now firmly under her belt, she must relish a return to the kind of form that garnered her a first major title.
Now guided by her new coach Torben Beltz, who has himself enjoyed past AO success with former charge Angelique Kerber, Raducanu dominated Stephens and will now look towards her next challenge in the form of Danka Kovinic from Montenegro in the next round, who overcame South Korean qualifier Jang Su Jeong, 6-3 2-6 6-4, in 3 hours and 9 minutes, the longest main-draw match of the year so far.