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Britain’s tennis darling, Emma Raducanu, has no expectations for her Australian Open campaign, she said on Saturday, but is “just happy to be here and have a swing”.
Since she won the US Open in September, Raducanu’s career has stuttered and bumped along, due not only to her inexperience but also to some grievous ill fortune – most recently the bout of Covid-19 that took out three valuable weeks of her off-season.
It feels as if the tennis gods are making Raducanu pay for the lucky breaks she enjoyed in New York, where her highest-ranked opponent was world No 12 Belinda Bencic. But she remains a cheery presence, even when the odds are stacked against her.
“Twelve months ago I was just in my room studying for my exams,” she said. “I was watching [the Australian Open] from afar. I just feel very grateful to have this opportunity to play here. Hopefully we’ll get out there and see the fans.
“Because of the last few months I’ve had, maybe I haven’t played as much as I would have liked to or trained so much. I feel like there’s actually no pressure on me.
“I feel like I’m just happy to be here and have a swing. I had to jump a few hurdles to play here, so I just want to have fun and enjoy [myself] on the court.”
Raducanu tested positive for Covid in Abu Dhabi, where she had travelled before Christmas to play in the Mubadala exhibition event. That meant 10 days of isolation. “I killed half the day by sleeping in to, like, 1pm,” she said. “And then I only had half a day to do things. I mean, one day I watched the GP final.”
When Raducanu eventually returned to the match court, on Tuesday in Sydney, her lack of preparation was brutally exposed in a 6-0, 6-1 thrashing by Elena Rybakina. The result looks alarming on paper, but she had arrived with just six or seven hours of court time behind her this season.
Asked whether Covid had left her short of stamina, she replied: “I don’t know, because I wasn’t tested physically [against Rybakina]. The points were over so fast.
“It’s a challenge to find the balance of wanting to get out there and practise straight after coming out of isolation. But if you do it after not doing anything for 20 days, you always start picking up small niggles.
“The first week I wasn’t able to practise so much. But after Sydney, the match, it was just good to see where I was. Afterwards I went out to sharpen up a few things on the practice court. I think that gradually I’m getting there.”
Just to add to the difficulty level of this Australian Open, Raducanu has drawn Sloane Stephens – the super-smooth American – as her opening opponent. Typically, theirs will be the only first-round match in either draw to pit two grand-slam champions against each other.
Is it time for Raducanu’s luck to turn? Perhaps this intriguing contest will be scheduled during Tuesday’s night session, which would at least save her from testing her dubious endurance levels under the ferocious Australian sun.
Plus, there are reasons to suspect that Stephens’s own preparations might have been sketchier than normal. She married her long-term partner Jozy Altidore – the former Sunderland striker – on New Year’s Day.
Saturday's interview also found Raducanu offering a knowing grin when asked about her new Nike advert. In the film, the 19-year-old US Open champion is pictured hitting balls in front of a backdrop that flashes up a sequence of words: “Distracted, Perfect, Fluke, Flawless, One-Hit Wonder.” Then it moves to a concluding message of “World Off. Game On.”
The first word in that sequence is clearly a reference to Eddie Jones, the England rugby head coach, who started a minor culture war in November by suggesting that Raducanu had been distracted by wearing Christian Dior clothes and posing for the covers of magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.
Asked for her opinion on the advert, Raducanu replied: “I loved it because it was very nice of Nike to have my back like that. When I saw it, I think it reflected me and what I’m feeling right now.”