Tennis Channel Live: Martina Navratilova on US Open champion Emma Raducanu, who lost her opener at Indian Wells

Advertising

“I am 18 years old,” Emma Raducanu said after her opening-round loss to 100th-ranked Aliaksandra Sasnovich in Indian Wells this weekend. “I need to cut myself some slack.”

Those were wise words, and ones we should all try to follow when it comes to Raducanu’s career. Not only is the newly-minted US Open champion only 18, she has played just a handful of tournaments in her exceedingly brief career. As of now, she’s still advertising for a full-time coach.

In many ways, Raducanu’s win in New York was a unicorn moment. She was ranked 150th coming into the tournament, and was the first qualifier to win a major title in the 53-year history of the Open Era. But it was also the logical next step in a four-year trend that has brought us a series of surprise, and often young, women’s Grand Slam champions. Jelena Ostapenko kicked this era off when she won Roland Garros as an unseeded 20-year-old in 2017. Since that epochal one-off, we’ve seen Sloane Stephens, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek, Barbora Krejcikova and now Raducanu shock the world in similar fashion. Even Ash Barty’s first major, in Paris in 2019, came on a surprising surface. Since Serena Williams won her last major, at the 2017 Australian Open, there have been 18 Slams played, with 13 different winners.

Each time, the new champion has been given the “star is born” treatment in the press. This is to be expected, considering how important the Grand Slams have become to the game, and how much value all of the top players put on them. When we watch a young player blaze her way through seven matches against highly-ranked and highly-motivated competition, and triumph in the pressure-cooker of a major final, it’s logical to believe she can do it again, and logical to wonder if she’s the sport’s next big thing.

Raducanu is a player who is finding her way on tour, and who caught lightning in a bottle for two weeks.

Raducanu is a player who is finding her way on tour, and who caught lightning in a bottle for two weeks.

But as we can see from the list of first-time winners above, it’s not always the case. So far their post-breakthrough careers have varied: Osaka has gone on to win three more majors, and Barty has won Wimbledon (on the “right” surface for her). Stephens and Kenin both reached another Slam final, but have also struggled. Andreescu has been hit by injuries, while also showing that her Open win wasn’t a fluke. Swiatek has been consistent enough to make the fourth round at all four Slams this year, but hasn’t challenged for another title. None of these women has been a flash in the pan, exactly, and none has permanently wilted under the wight of expectations. But none of them have taken over the sport in Serena-like fashion, either. Even Osaka, who has been fairly dominant on hard courts, has yet to make herself a threat on clay or grass.

Instead of signaling what a player is going to do over and over again, winning a Slam these days shows us what a player can do when the stars align for two weeks. Historically, there has always been a champion, or a pair of champions, who have been there to guard the Grand Slam door, so to speak. Chris and Martina, Steffi and Monica, Venus and Justine and Serena: When they were at their best, it was exceedingly difficult for any player to come out of nowhere to win a Slam. Since Serena’s possible last hurrah in 2017, there hasn’t been anyone with that stature or level of dominance to maintain order. Osaka can do it to a certain extent on hard courts, but not at Wimbledon or Roland Garros. Barty is a deserving No. 1 and will surely win more majors, but she can also go out early on an off day.

With that in mind, the tennis world should manage its expectations for its young champions accordingly. We should begin by saluting their accomplishment, and enjoying and appreciating for what it is—a thrilling, world-beating two weeks that reminds us that anything is possible in tennis, and in life. We can acknowledge the brilliance of the performance, while also recognizing that the player may or may not repeat that performance again. Even if Ostapenko never wins another major, that last, screaming backhand return she hit to win the French in 2017 will still be one of the most exciting shots and moments I’ve ever seen in tennis. You can’t take that away from her, or from us.

Advertising

More important, once the player falls back to earth, which is inevitable, we shouldn’t immediately ask, “What happened?” or automatically act as if she isn’t fulfilling her potential. It’s easy to imagine, if Raducanu loses in the first round at the Australian Open, that we’ll read articles about how she has let fame go to her head, or that she wasn’t cut out for the pressure after all, or that we all got excited over nothing, and her career may suddenly begin to seem like a failure in the making. In reality, Raducanu is a player who is finding her way on tour, and who caught lightning in a bottle for two weeks.

Tennis has been made better by these shocking Slam-title runs. Ostapenko’s blistering final backhand in Paris; Sloane staring open-mouthed at her winner’s check in New York; Osaka and Andreescu holding their nerve against Serena in US Open finals; Kenin firing off five straight winners in the third set to seal the Aussie Open title; Swiatek bowling over the competition, and Krejcikova outfoxing it, at Roland Garros; Raducanu playing tennis of perfect simplicity, and Leylah Fernandez out-dueling seed after seed at this year’s Open. These are moments to savor in their own right, and not for what they may or may not lead to in the future.

As Raducanu says, we can appreciate what these players give us when they’re at their best, and cut them some slack when they aren’t.