Emma Raducanu’s straight-sets defeat on Friday night will have come as no surprise to anyone who studies tennis history. There are isolated examples of players winning their next tournament after a maiden grand-slam title – Victoria Azarenka and Ashleigh Barty included – but most newly minted champions take longer to adjust.
What was more concerning, however, was the lack of support around Raducanu in the Californian desert. Here is the hottest property in tennis; arguably even in sport. And yet she had no more than a skeleton crew with her at Indian Wells: co-agent Chris Helliar, hitting partner Raymond Sarmiento (who lives locally in Los Angeles) and locum coach Jeremy Bates, who was always going to leave the tournament this weekend because of prior commitments. Had Raducanu reached her putative meeting with Simona Halep in the next round, she would have had no coach with her at all.
Such logistics are not primarily Raducanu’s responsibility, even if she is unusually hands-on for an 18-year-old. It should be up to the people around her to provide everything she needs. Instead, the impression is that her family, agents and advisors have been taken by surprise by her sudden emergence.
Perhaps this is understandable, given the shock factor of the US Open triumph. When you add up the hundreds of major tournaments that had gone past without a qualifier ever winning one, what Raducanu did in New York was effectively impossible. Still, a sustainable plan for the future is now urgently required, even if there must now be a possibility that the rest of 2021 will be written off while a permanent coaching appointment is sought.
Indian Wells was always going to be a challenging return to the game for a woman who now has a target on her back. And Raducanu herself sounded woebegone after the match.
Speaking to a small group of reporters, she was asked how she planned to replace Andrew Richardson – the coach who had assisted her during the US Open, only to find that his contract was not extended thereafter. Raducan’s reply was unexpected. “If any experienced coaches are out there looking, you know where to find me,” she said. We initially thought that this was just a throwaway line, but she came back to it in the very next answer. “I’m not joking,” she insisted, “if anyone knows any experienced coaches.”
She was then asked whether it had been unsettling to look to her player box and see no sign of Richardson or her physio Will Herbert (who is expected to rejoin the camp soon after missing this event). “They definitely played a huge part in New York,” she replied, “and I’m still hoping to continue working with Will in the future”. But had there not been any thought of keeping Richardson on, at least until the end of the season? “I’ve told you guys, I’m looking for someone more experienced and I decided to … we decided to end it at the end of US Open. I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know what’s going to happen next. But I’m sure that my team and everyone will be able to try and find a solution.” Exactly who made this decision remains a moot point.
Speaking on the Tennis Channel, the former world No1 and Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport said “The important thing is to get it right next time. You don’t want to be on a continuingly rotating carousel. Either in the next month, or certainly before she goes Down Under [for January’s Australian Open], she’s going to have to find somebody that she can navigate the professional world with. Something needs to change because she needs to have a solid, stable camp and people she can depend on.”
The match itself had found Raducanu looking curiously passive during her 6-2, 6-4 defeat to world No100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich. Her movement between points was listless and slow. Her body language soon became negative. On several occasions, she adopted the double-teapot position as she waited to receive serve.
Even when Sasnovich’s level dipped early in the second set, allowing Raducanu to move into a 4-2 lead, there were no fist-pumps or shouts of “Come on” to change the energy of a flat and disappointing night. How different from New York, where many former players commented on the way she had commanded the stage, intimidating opponents with her fierce and fearless aura.
If there was a positive to the evening, it was the remarkable maturity with which Raducanu spoke during her general press conference after the match. “I’m still so new to everything,” Raducanu told reporters in a Zoom call. “Like the experiences that I’m going through, even though I might not feel 100 per cent amazing right now, I know they’re for the greater good. For the bigger picture, I’ll be thanking this moment.”
Chris Evert, one of the greatest champions of the 20th Century, commented afterwards about the importance of taking lessons from this defeat. “Good lesson for Emma Raducanu to learn to pace herself a little better,” wrote Evert on her Twitter page, in a remark that presumably applied to the intensity of Raducanu’s post-US Open experience.
Raducanu is now entered into three more events before the end of the season. Moscow from tomorrow week, then the Transylvanian Open in the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca, and finally Linz in the second week of November. And yet, given that she now has a vanishingly small chance of qualifying for the end-of-season WTA Finals, there must be a question about how much she will want to play, especially if the coaching issue remains problematic.
British tennis insiders suggest that the favourite for the job is Carlos Rodriguez, a 57-year-old Argentine who has previously worked with two major champions: Justine Henin for 15 years as well as Li Na for a shorter stint. As Davenport put it, “It would be huge if it [a coaching deal] was in place as the off-season begins, so she could really go to work with her game.”