It was an agonisingly close-run thing, but Britain’s biggest tennis hope Emma Raducanu could not quite manage a title on the eve of her maiden appearance at the US Open.
Raducanu is due to play in the qualifying event in New York this week – which will be the first time that she has participated in any grand slam, even at the preliminary stage, outside Wimbledon.
Had she been able to sneak the extra few points she needed for victory over fellow 18-year-old Clara Tauson on Sunday night, it would have been a huge morale boost, for this was a $125,000 tournament, and thus significantly stronger than the $25,000 and $15,000 events she has won in the past.
But Raducanu can hardly be too disappointed with her first four weeks in the USA, which have already delivered eight wins as against only three defeats – one of which came after she was struck down by heatstroke in ferociously intense conditions in Pennsylvania a week ago.
Last night’s match was her first final in one of these Challenger-level events, and it came against a woman she has faced several times in the junior ranks, as they were born less than six weeks apart in 2002.
Tauson has been touted as the next Caroline Wozniacki, even though she plays a more aggressive style than the former world No 1. Raducanu hasn’t really been linked with any particular British antecedent, given that we haven’t had a world-beater since Virginia Wade in the 1970s. But she is achieving things at a young age which evoke the prodigious talent of Laura Robson – even though Robson’s career took a swift downturn after she suffered the first tinglings of what would become a debilitating wrist issue in 2013.
During last week’s run in Chicago, Raducanu had already despatched a pair of top-100 opponents in world No 58 Alison Van Uytvanck and world No 93 Clara Burel, results which offered further evidence of the star quality she displayed during her recent run to the fourth round of Wimbledon.
Against Tauson, she started slowly in gusty, windy conditions which caused one of the courtside umbrellas to be carried out of its stand. Neither woman felt confident on their serve, such was the movement of the ball-toss in the air, and there were more breaks than holds in the early stages, which found Raducanu dropping the first set 6-1 before recovering to send the match into a decider.
A healthy crowd had gathered at the XS Tennis Village – a trailblazing centre in downtown Chicago which has arguably done more than any other club to bring diversity to American tennis, in defiance of its old “Country Club” image. This was a truly urban setting, as demonstrated by the deafening rattle of a train along the neighbouring tracks every few games.
Raducanu took a 2-0 lead in the third set and seemed to have Tauson at the end of her tether, judging by much banging of the Danish racket on the court surface and a lengthy argument with the umpire at the end of that second game. But she narrowly failed to break again for 3-0 – which might have been decisive – and Tauson began to ramp up her aggression. Despite some athletic and determined defence from Raducanu, these tight matches usually go to the player who is prepared to be more assertive, and so it was as Tauson closed out a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory in a little over two hours.
Earlier, world No 1 Ashleigh Barty had clinched her fifth title of the season – the most prestigious being Wimbledon – with a thumping 6-3, 6-1 victory over Jil Teichman at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. The match lasted only 76 minutes and confirmed Barty’s status as a leading contender for the US Open when the tournament proper starts in a week’s time.