As Emma Raducanu fielded questions before her debut at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, a wry smile slowly spread across her face and she jokingly held her head in her hands. It is a familiar sight in her press conferences these days as the same question, phrased differently and often by local journalists, has followed her on every stop of the tour: are you feeling the pressure?
“I just lost count how many times I’ve been asked this question,” she said. “If I lose 2,000 points so be it, I’ll start again from the bottom. I know I can do something that no one else has done. I qualified and won the US Open, so I can start from the beginning, I can start from zero and I’m not afraid of that.”
It may well be a valid topic to broach for a player who produced one of the most astonishing grand slam title runs in recent years yet has gone 13-17 since winning the US Open as a qualifier, but so too is her frustration as she tries to build her experience and address all of the steps in her development.
“I just think that everything that’s happening right now has probably just meant to be in my journey and I need to go through those development stages at some point because I did miss them,” Raducanu said. “I went from playing 25ks to winning the US Open.”
The next step of that journey will be unforgettable. On Monday night, the first feature match of this year’s tournament, she will step out on to the court to face Serena Williams on what is likely the penultimate stop on the American’s farewell tour. As many players of her generation have openly discussed their hopes that Williams would be drawn into their sections, that privilege is hers.
“I think it’s gonna be an exciting match. I’m looking forward to it. It’s an amazing opportunity to play probably the best the best tennis player of all time. It’s probably going to be my last opportunity to ever play her,” she said.
“I think that, for our careers to have crossed over, I think I’m really fortunate that I get to play her. Whatever happens, I think it’s gonna be a really good experience for me and something that I will remember for the rest of her life.”
Raducanu has not known tennis without Serena as the transcendent, towering presence over the sport that she has been for the past two decades. Williams was ranked No 1 with four grand-slam titles and already a hall‑of‑fame career when Raducanu was born.
Before Williams’s name was drawn next to her, their most comprehensive interaction was the brief minutes they spent training on adjacent courts in Toronto last week before practice was almost immediately suspended because of rain, and a few brief greetings exchanged in the hallways.
Raducanu said her most vivid memory of Williams was when she was whisked to Wimbledon with her coach and another young aspiring player when she was around seven years old.
“I remember the highlight of my year was when I was young, at a tennis club, my first coach would take me and one other boy to Wimbledon on my day out. We’d take the tram there. We got on to Centre Court somehow and we watched her annihilate someone one and one. That was just really cool to see her live. That day out with my first coach, I was so excited for the day. I think that was a really special time in my life, a memory that I’ll always have.”
After Dmitry Tursunov was unable to join her in Toronto because of pre-existing plans, Raducanu has resumed their trial partnership this week. On Saturday she and Tursunov continued their preparations as she trained with new Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina, who herself is in the familiar position of adjusting to a life changing breakout grand slam title victory.
As Tursunov provided continuous pointers, his relaxed demeanour contrasted starkly with the prickly interactions between Rybakina and her coach, Stefano Vukov. “He’s here, we’re continuing the trial,” Raducanu said. “It’s mainly, we just need to see how we work with each other, how we compliment each other. That’s it, I guess. It’s too early to tell.”
While she stresses that she is unbothered, it would certainly be understandable if this period comes with some heightened tension. Cincinnati marks the last tournament left for Raducanu before she heads to New York in order to defend her US Open title.
Since returning to the North American hard‑court swing with the US Open in sight, Raducanu reached the quarter-final at the Citi Open in Washington, and then lost in her opening match at the National Bank Open in Toronto. In both defeats, against the No 60 Liudmila Samsonova and the No 29 Camila Giorgi, Raducanu was overpowered by two opponents with considerably greater firepower and she struggled to impose herself.
On Monday night though, all eyes will be on her opponent, and perhaps the opportunity of being able to swing freely in an unlikely, once in a lifetime occasion and against one of the ultimate legends will be liberating.
“Expectations, I don’t really know, I don’t really care. I just want to go out there and, one, enjoy the match that I’m going to play whenever I do play it. It’s a great gift to play the best on her way out from the sport. So I’m just looking forward to that.”