How Emma Raducanu rediscovered winning formula: The four key reasons she outclassed Sloane Stephens

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Emma Raducanu beams with delight after winning her first-round match - SHUTTERSTOCK
Emma Raducanu beams with delight after winning her first-round match - SHUTTERSTOCK

Emma Raducanu shone at a grand slam again as she marked her Australian Open debut with victory in the battle of the US Open champions against Sloane Stephens.

The 19-year-old has found wins hard to come by since her extraordinary success in New York in September but, back on the big stage, Raducanu came up with the right formula again to claim a 6-0, 2-6, 6-1 victory.

She lost just four points in a startling first set that admittedly was woeful from Stephens before the American hit her stride in the second.

That set up a first-ever decider at this level for Raducanu, and she could not have handled it any better, keeping her cool and striking the ball with confidence to clinch victory after an hour and 45 minutes.

Flying start

Hitting a forehand winner on the first point of the match, Raducanu shouted "Come on!" with a ferocity which showed she meant business. Then she won six games in a row and within 16 minutes was wiping her face with her towel at her chair, readying for the second set. It was the kind of blistering tennis that caught her opponents off guard in New York, and which we had not seen from the US Open champion since.

Emma Raducanu of Great Britain celebrates winning a point during her first round singles match against Sloane Stephens of United States during day two of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. - GETTY IMAGES
Emma Raducanu of Great Britain celebrates winning a point during her first round singles match against Sloane Stephens of United States during day two of the 2022 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 18, 2022 in Melbourne, Australia. - GETTY IMAGES

Last week Raducanu let a quality player in Elena Rybakina call the shots in her 6-0, 6-1 loss in Sydney, but on Tuesday she did not wait to feel out her much more experienced opponent Stephens. It was the first time she had ever played a fellow major champion, but Raducanu showed no signs of being intimidated in the opening stages and focused on her own tennis, serving at nearly 80 per cent in the first set and stifling Stephens on the return.

It was the best tactic to employ against a player who can often start matches slowly. Before this match, Stephens had not played on tour since October, and landed in Melbourne later than usual after her wedding on New Year's Day. She looked undercooked at first and Raducanu sensed the opportunity, moving inside the baseline to take her returns early so as not to give Stephens a look in.

Stepping up to the occasion

Raducanu proved herself a big-time player at both Wimbledon and the US Open, but after a mixed set of results since there were doubts in some corners about how she would cope with being a major champion in Melbourne. Her performance on Tuesday, while only a first-round win, showed flashes of the gutsy competitor that took Flushing Meadows by storm.

Not only that, we saw a new pressure put on her by Stephens, as Raducanu played only her third ever three-set match at tour level and her first at a major. The way she came out for the decider, particularly after Stephens turned things around in the second set, showed resilience and maturity.

Raducanu almost halved her unforced errors from 19 in the second set to nine in the third and, in tidying that up, was able to stick out the longer rallies and wait for Stephens to misfire - which she did 17 times in the decider. Raducanu also won more points on her second serve in the third set than she did throughout the first two combined and, though she will be keen to mop up the double faults (she hit six), on the crucial points she proved the more decisive player, winning six of eight break points.

Emma Raducanu. - GETTY IMAGES
Emma Raducanu. - GETTY IMAGES

Problem solving

Seeing Raducanu lose a set at a major for the first time opened up new learnings about what kind of player she is. The momentum swung dramatically from her side to Stephens', as her forehand weapon came alive in the second set and her defensive prowess started to show. Raducanu, in turn, began hitting more errors, perhaps in an attempt to get through points more quickly.

She worked out how to deal with this more aggressive Stephens though, unpicking some of Stephens' weaknesses, in particular by forcing her onto her backhand to avoid the firepower of her favourite shot, and mixed up the height of the ball to throw the American off balance. While it took some time, by the beginning of the third set she had got the better of Stephens.

Moving well

Early in the third set, Stephens hit a sharp-angled return at Raducanu and the teenager chased it beyond the tramlines before pummelling her diagonal forehand right back at Stephens’ feet, roaring in celebration. While against Rybakina last week she was often scrambling to catch up with her powerful shot-making and was out-muscled, against Stephens her court coverage and movement was back to her very best.

Stephens has a reputation as a quality defensive player, but Raducanu challenged her on that front as she coped with acute angles from the baseline and was rarely beaten at the net.