Eleanor Crooks, PA Tennis Correspondent, Melbourne
The grand slam stage inspired Emma Raducanu once again as she marked her Australian Open debut with victory in the battle of the US Open champions against Sloane Stephens.
Wins have been hard to come by for the 19-year-old since her extraordinary success in New York in September but, back on the big stage, Raducanu found the right formula to claim a 6-0 2-6 6-1 victory.
She lost just four points in a startling first set that admittedly was woeful from Stephens before the American hit her stride in the second.
A Melbourne moment to remember ✨
🇬🇧 @EmmaRaducanu opens her account at the #AusOpen with a first round victory over Sloane Stephens, 6-0 2-6 6-1.
🎥: @wwos • @espn • @Eurosport • @wowowtennis #AO2022 pic.twitter.com/UeUbmdRy18
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 18, 2022
That set up a first ever decider at this level for Raducanu and she could not have handled it any better, keeping her cool and striking the ball with confidence to clinch victory after an hour and 45 minutes.
Raducanu looked emotional at the end, dropping her racket to the ground and covering her face with her hands, and she said: “It meant a lot, for sure.
“It’s my first win in Australia in a grand slam. I came here when I played the juniors and I lost first round, so to come out here and get my first win, I was very, very happy.”
Both players went into the match undercooked – Raducanu after a battle with Covid-19 and Stephens following her wedding to footballer Jozy Altidore on New Year’s Day.
1.1.22 ♾ pic.twitter.com/9Ll2WRKREp
— sloanestephens (@SloaneStephens) January 4, 2022
Raducanu won only one game against Elena Rybakina in Sydney last week having just returned to full training and it was hard to know what to expect from her here.
What transpired in a remarkable 17-minute first set was that Raducanu had found her sharpness while Stephens looked like she was still on honeymoon.
“I definitely wanted to go out there and start playing aggressively and start putting my game on the court,” said Raducanu, who screamed in delight after the first point.
“I felt that I was actually just really enjoying my time here, especially going out to practise earlier, I had quite a few people watching. I think that the crowd that stayed pretty late, we were having a good time. I was feeding off that, for sure.”
Stephens’ career has been erratic to say the least but her 2017 success in New York was a demonstration of what a talent she is when she is mentally engaged.
Helped by a dip from Raducanu, the American turned the match around early in the second set, her fluid movement and clean hitting allowing her to dictate from the baseline.
All 14 of Raducanu’s matches at Wimbledon and the US Open were completed in straight sets so a decider was a new experience but she handled it with aplomb, showing her competitive steel in some tight moments before clinching victory on her third match point.
“I think 2022 is all about learning for me,” she said. “Being in those situations of winning a set and then having to fight in a decider is definitely just all accumulating into a bank of experience that I can tap into later on down the line. I’m very happy that today I can add to that.”
Stephens reached the semi-finals in Melbourne in 2013 as a teenager and has some insight into the transition Raducanu is trying to make.
“I think the hardest part is trying to prove that you are good enough to be where you are or good enough to stay where you are,” she said.
“I was talking to someone in the locker room and I’m like, ‘We’ll be here when she comes down’. Not Emma but just in general. It all is like a cycle and I think learning how to deal with it early on is the best way to handle it just because there’s always a lot of ups and downs in tennis.”