Emma Raducanu walked on to Court No 1 on Saturday with a huge smile, her arm raised high, soaking in the atmosphere on her first experience on a show court at Wimbledon. Less than two hours later, the 18-year-old left as the youngest British woman to reach the second week since 1959 and with a standing ovation ringing in her ears.
Ranked No 338 and having never played a Tour-level match before the start of the week, Raducanu showed she has the game, the fight and the mental fortitude for the very top level. Her 6-3, 7-5 win over Sorana Cirstea, the world No 45 from Romania, was a mixture of brilliance and determination, a stunning effort that will take her well inside the world’s top 200 and which bodes well for the future.
And not just for the future. Raducanu takes on Ajla Tomljanovic in the fourth round on Monday and though the Australian trumps her in terms of experience, it is undoubtedly a match that she can win, especially if she handles the occasion.
“Yesterday I came out here and I sat courtside for about five minutes,” she said. “They let me get a feel for the court, which I think was very valuable because when I went out there today I sort of knew what to expect a little bit.
“I thought if I’m not going to enjoy Court 1 at Wimbledon, home crowd, what are you going to enjoy? This is the cherry at the top of tennis. I was just so excited. When I heard the crowd just roar for the first time, I was like: ‘Wow, they’re so behind me.’ I was just feeding off of their energy. I’m just so excited I get to play in front of them again.”
Raducanu attended the same school as British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith and she will find out the results of her A-levels next month, having stayed on at school because her parents wanted to have something for her to fall back on if tennis did not work out. Based on her performances this week, she looks unlikely to need her qualifications for now, and with a coach like Nigel Sears, who guided Ana Ivanovic, Daniela Hantuchova and the late Elena Baltacha, she has a good team around her.
Tracy Austin, who knows a bit about being a teenage prodigy having won the US Open twice, first at the age of 16 and then again at 18, clearly liked what she saw. “To me she seems like an incredible competitor,” Austin said on the BBC. “She’s an incredible athlete. I think she has a great head on her shoulders, she seems very grounded, I think that’s going to help her. Having Nigel in her corner will help, he has such experience.”
Raducanu said she would be giving her phone to her osteopath in an effort to avoid some of the inevitable hype. “In a way maybe it does help being in this own little world and bubble, that you don’t really go outside or see anyone,” she said.
“Me and my team are really just having dinner together. Everything is just in a really tight and supportive group. I mean, I’ve got no complaints about the bubble. I really like it actually.”
If there were any nerves at the start, they were well hidden as the 18-year-old, born in Canada to a Chinese mother and Romanian father, forcing a break point in the opening game. Cirstea, who had beaten the former world No 1 Victoria Azarenka in the previous round, was under pressure immediately, thrown by how aggressive Raducanu was on the return of serve.
The Romanian held, though, and broke serve to lead 3-1 only for Raducanu to respond by reeling off five games in a row, helped by some stunning shot-making – particularly with her backhand, which looks world class. She dropped just two points on serve in the rest of a set she clinched with a brilliant, instinctive backhand lob, her celebration almost as good as the shot itself as she raised both arms above her head and spun around in delight.
For three games of the second set, it was as if Raducanu was trying to put together a showreel of greatest hits. She thumped winners on both sides, her forehand on the run leaving Cirstea stranded on more than one occasion. At 3-0, 0-40 on the Cirstea serve, the match was close to over, only for the Romanian to dig in, hold serve and then break as she levelled at 3-3.
It was then that Raducanu showed the kind of strength that will go a long way toward determining how far she eventually goes in the game. Other players might have folded after missing their big chance, or become tight, their inexperience kicking in. But Raducanu continued to go for her shots, even when Cirstea started to target her forehand on serve.
At 4-3, Raducanu produced some more stunning play to force five break points but the 31-year-old Cirstea, who has been good enough to be ranked as high as No 21 in the past, used all her experience to hold on and level again.
But Raducanu did not let her missed opportunities get to her and held on to lead 6-5. Though Cirstea saved a match point with a good serve, Raducanu forced another and then won perhaps the best point of the entire match to clinch a famous victory.