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Pressure. Expectation. Stress. Tension. These were the words which failed to apply to Emma Raducanu during her dreamlike run to the US Open title last month.
But after a couple of weeks on the celebrity trail, Raducanu came back to work on Friday night (Saturday morning UK time) and ran into those four horsemen of the tennis apocalypse.
Her 6-2, 6-4 loss to world No 100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich was a reminder of how unforgiving this sport can be. Each tournament brings its own condition, its own challenges, and its own pitfalls. Raducanu never adjusted and was bundled out of Indian Wells in 85 minutes.
Still, there was one big positive to take from this otherwise disappointing night, and that was the maturity of Raducanu’s post-match comments.
We have seen other tennis prodigies flare brightly but briefly, losing their way in a welter of distractions. In her case, however, an admirable sense of perspective is written through everything she says and does.
“I'm still so new to everything,” Raducanu told reporters in a Zoom call. “Like the experiences that I'm going through, even though I might not feel 100 per cent amazing right now, I know they're for the greater good. For the bigger picture, I'll be thanking this moment.
“So, yeah, that's the lesson I think, that you can easily get sucked into being so focused on the result and getting disappointed. I mean, I'm 18 years old. I need to cut myself some slack.”
So many first-time slam champions, young and old, have struggled to get back on the horse after their life-changing triumph. So it should hardly be a surprise that Raducanu struggled to find her game on Friday, especially in the cold, heavy conditions of the Californian desert.
Remarkably, she has played only one night match before in her entire career – and that was the semi-final of the US Open.
“I haven't had much experience with night matches,” Raducanu said. “I'm still very, very new to the tour. I think that experience just comes from playing week in, week out and experiencing all these different things.
“Yeah, I'm kind of glad that what happened today happened so I can learn and take it as a lesson. So going forward, I'll just have more experienced banked.”
The early signs on Friday night were encouraging, if misleading. Raducanu won the first six points of the match, holding to love with a couple of lovely one-two punches and then placing early pressure on the Sasnovich serve.
But this proved to be a false dawn. After Sasnovich had gritted out a steely hold, Raducanu failed to win a point in her second service game, which started with a double-fault and finished with a wild forehand error. Things began to unravel from there.
Her movement between points was listless and slow. Her body language soon became negative, often seeing her perform a double teapot as she waited to receive serve. From time to time, she placed a hand on her left hip or lumbar region, as if she was feeling physically inhibited.
Sasnovich was excellent in the first set, finding a far greater depth with her groundstrokes than Raducanu could manage, and throwing in some nice touches with her lobs and drop-shots.
The second set was much more scrappy. Sasnovich began to show her own signs of tension, rather inviting Raducanu to win four out of five games at one stage as she took a 4-2 lead. Strangely, though, there were no fist-pumps from Raducanu, no visible evidence that she felt she was gaining momentum.
Here was a woman who seemed unable to express herself physically, verbally or emotionally. Again, this should not be a surprise.
Success, especially sudden success, brings enormous pressure in its wake. And great tennis relies on loose, fluid movement. With a little time, one imagines that Raducanu will learn coping mechanisms and recover the joyful sense of freedom that we saw in New York.
The crowd did their best to inspire a woman who has become a fan favourite far beyond Great Britain. But the arena was only a third full, as a result of the change in this tournament’s dates and the general impact of Covid. The atmosphere was fairly flat throughout, as indeed was Raducanu.
Sasnovich’s nerves relented once she was behind. When the underdog pressed forward again, Raducanu had no answer. A backhand flew long to conclude the contest and bring Andy Murray out onto the stadium court, for the second match of a night billed as “the British blockbuster”.
It is a bizarre feature of Raducanu’s unique career trajectory that she is yet to land even a set in three appearances at WTA Tour level, despite her status as a grand-slam champion. Again, though, she is far too smart to worry about this odd statistic.
“I mean, it will come in time,” she said, displaying an admirably philosophical outlook. “Just got to not rush it and keep going and get my head back to the drawing board really.
“I'm not match-tight right now. Like, I haven't played a competition in a month, since the US Open. That will just come just playing week in, week out.
“What do I need to work on? I mean, I'll probably just go back and review the match, probably tomorrow when I can look at it with a clear head. Yeah, from then I'll be able to plan.”
Friday night may have delivered a defeat, but with such a textbook growth mindset, Raducanu’s future surely holds more wonderful moments to come.