As Emma Raducanu reflected earlier in the week on the growing experience at her grasp during her year on the tour, her assessment of its benefits was paired with a note of caution. She may know her way around the tournaments now, but every player in the world knows her better. The target on her back is only growing and everyone wants to take their shot.
In her second appearance on Centre Court in as many matches, Raducanu lived that reality to the fullest. Earlier this year in Indian Wells, she flattened Caroline Garcia in a three-setter, winning both of her sets 6-1. With the experience of playing Raducanu and a greater understanding of what to expect, however, this time round Garcia suffocated the British player’s forehand and relentlessly attacked her second serve. Inspired by the occasion and her distinguished opponent, Garcia thoroughly outplayed Raducanu to reach the third round with a 6-3, 6-3 win.
As Garcia underlined the lessons she took from their first encounter afterwards, Raducanu explained that she believes her opponents learning the nuances of her game will only help in her development: “Of course it will make me a better player because they’re just highlighting all my weaknesses. Then when you do it on a big court like that, it’s definitely magnified. It’s just great for me to get all these lessons at such a young age so that when I’m in my mid-20s I’ll have those issues or little glitches in my game sorted,” she said.
Raducanu’s form was naturally tempered by her stunted preparation, having missed the entire pre-Wimbledon grass-court season after suffering a side strain during her first-round match in Nottingham. As she was peppered with questions about her defeat here, she continually made her limitations clear.
“I didn’t feel anything out there,” she said.” I declared myself fully fit when I walked out on to the court on the first day. But I’ve played seven hours of tennis in a month. To even compete with these girls at this level and win a round I think is a pretty good achievement.”
While Garcia is ranked No 55, she is a former No 4 who had arrived at Wimbledon in blazing grass-court form, winning her eighth career title in Bad Homburg last week. But her career has been defined by her inability to match her mental strength to her talent. As France’s brightest hope for so long, she would request to be played on the second court at Roland Garros, Court Suzanne Lenglen, such was her discomfort with the big stage.
But her talent is undeniable; her potent serve, her heavy forehand and the athleticism that binds her game together. She showed them all off in the early stages against Raducanu, serving extremely well and imposing her far greater weight of shot, at times standing halfway up to the service line to return the opponent’s second serves, battering them and flitting to the net.
Even when Garcia sprayed unforced errors and relinquished her early break, she was unmoved in her urgency to dominate. She was in total control, forcing Raducanu behind the baseline, peppering her forehand and punishing any short balls. Raducanu had so little control at times that even double-faults from Garcia drew cheers from the crowd.
As the challenge continued to rise throughout the second set, Raducanu tried to hang on in the high-octane exchanges. She squatted down to the lawn as she desperately attempted to hold her ground, she pumped her fist at unforced errors and at times she was just trying hard to remain in the point. But she neither had the firepower to match Garcia, nor the variety to disrupt her game.
Garcia was relentless until the end, and Raducanu was outmatched by a player with a bigger serve and heavier strokes who rose to the occasion facing her. It will not be the last time this happens, and the challenge in this next year of her career will be to find a way to rise, too.
Although frustrated after a difficult defeat, Raducanu was not upset. She smiled throughout her press conference, particularly when she tackled a question in Chinese for the first time. But she was exasperated when asked for the umpteenth time about the pressure from her US Open title: “There’s no pressure. Like, why is there any pressure? I’m still 19. Like, it’s a joke. I literally won a slam,” she said, smiling.
There is no shame in taking a loss to a former top-five player in good form, and it is only another experience to learn from. The great shame of Raducanu’s grass-court season is how little she was able to play. As she looks towards the US hardcourt swing, her goal must be to remain fit so she can give herself the best chance as her rivals conspire to take her down.