“I want to go to bed,” Emma Raducanu said, smiling, as the subject of her press conference shifted to her next plans and goals after she had been usurped in the first round at the US Open as the defending champion. Just over an hour after her defeat by Alizé Cornet, Raducanu had arrived wearing a cap angled low, covering her face, still processing all that had unfolded that evening.
Losing in the first round of a grand slam tournament as the defending champion is a harsh, torrid experience but she leaves New York with no shame. Raducanu played an OK match but Cornet – a 32‑year‑old former No 11 who has battled numerous more accomplished players at grand slam tournaments this year, rising to defeat them each time – was spectacular. She drew on all her nous, improvisational skills and experience to neutralise Raducanu in extremely windy conditions.
The defeat opens a new chapter of Raducanu’s career. After a year inside the top 20, she will fall down to no better than No 79 in the rankings. She has received byes, late starts and all of the privileges of being a top player for a year, but now Raducanu will return to the back of the queue. She will enter most events as one of the lower ranked players, the qualifying draws of the biggest tournaments.
“It’s a clean slate,” she said. “I’m going to drop down the rankings. Climb my way back up.”
Professional tennis places the burden on the individual athlete to make crucial decisions, and it will only come with more choices. As a grand slam title winner, Raducanu is eligible to receive unlimited wildcards. Her prominence and fame mean that any bigger events that she cannot enter directly will be keen to offer her wildcards and see her in their main draw.
It will be interesting to see if she takes them, or if the Briton truly embraces a fresh start and tries to build her ranking. Navigating a few qualifying rounds is not an attractive scenario after clinching one of the ultimate achievements in the sport, but for such an inexperienced player it would give her a greater chance of piecing together wins, playing more matches and gaining momentum.
Still, not that much will change. Raducanu is a grand slam title winner for life and opponents will still relish the prospect of beating her. The target on her back remains, as do all of the negative aspects of her prominence that she has experienced over the past year. But she should be motivated by the opportunity to take a more conventional path to the top, building each week and establishing a career that can last.
If there is anything that should be taken from Raducanu’s first year as a grand slam title winner, it is just how difficult this sport is. In so many ways, winning a grand slam title makes life more challenging for players. It thrusts them into a completely unfamiliar situation, forcing them to adjust to and find a new way to perform without the freedom with which they emerged.
There are eight active one‑time grand slam title winners. The Wimbledon champion, Elena Rybakina, expressed her frustration about how little things had seemingly changed since winning the SW19 title – only to learn that they sure had. After winning 11 successive major first‑round matches, earlier in the day she lost 6-4, 6-4 against the No 131 Clara Burel. The 2018 French Open champion, Jelena Ostapenko, who also lost in the first round, says she only recently adjusted to the attention generated by her success. Bianca Andreescu, US Open champion in 2019, contemplated retirement last year and is still trying to make it back to the top.
The clearest positive of this North American swing is that Raducanu has finally found a level of stability that she can build on. After countless injuries during the year, her body has held up physically throughout her time in North America, aside from her blisters. Although she declined to state whether she will request his services on a long-term basis, she appears to be working well with her trial coach Dmitry Tursunov.
The career of a top tennis player may be extremely difficult, but it is also long with new opportunities every single week. Raducanu will pick herself up and there will be more chances to come.