Australian Open 2022: Emma Raducanu wins battle of US Open champs with win over Sloane Stephens
Andy Murray, Dan Evans and Heather Watson also into Round 2; Harriet Dart and Liam Broady beaten
“Winning a Grand Slam is great but I think at my age it interrupted the peaceful process of growing up and developing my game. Suddenly we had to rush to get to the same level, mentally and tennis-wise, to where my expectations were.”
So said Iga Swiatek in her thoughtful and intelligent column for the BBC Sport website this week ahead of the first Major of 2022 in Australia. The Pole was a break-out champion at Roland Garros during the first year of the Covid pandemic, when the French Open switched to autumn and produced a delightful new champion, the then 19-year-old Swiatek: It was her career-first title.
And as has been the case for many young players thrown into the limelight with little experience, it forced a swift and steep learning curve. However, Swiatek, who has a smart head on her shoulders, has now consolidated her place in the top 10 with the prestigious Rome 1000 and a quarter-final run in Paris last summer.
Now British teenager Emma Raducanu faced a similar scenario, after she won the US Open last year in just her fourth main-tour event and at 18 years old.
She had already made an impression by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon—weeks after taking her A-level exams—in just her second main-tour event and ranked 338. But in four tournaments since, she lost the opener three times.
Yet the pressure, particularly in her UK home, has grown off court too; She won one of its biggest sporting accolades, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, and was then awarded an MBE in the New Year Honours.
Certainly her preparation for her Australia campaign, now with a new coach Torben Beltz, was far from ideal after starting the year with a Covid infection and pulling out of her planned appearance in the Melbourne Summer Set. She was then thrown into the deep end in her opener in Sydney against Elena Rybakina: Raducanu managed just one game against the tall, powerful world No12.
Now she faced the 2017 US Open champion, Sloane Stephens, ranked 67, but one of the most dangerous unseeded women in the draw. But Raducanu opened strongly, a winner heralding a love hold, followed by an immediate break. She broke again, hitting winners to both corners at will, it seemed, and by 5-0, she had won 20 points from 23 after just 13 minutes. Two minutes later, and she had the set, 6-0, 24 points to four, seven winners to zero.
The second set began very differently, with Raducanu making two unforced errors and a double fault for break points. Another double fault, and she gave Stephens the break at the fifth time of asking after almost 12 minutes.
The reversal continued with a quick hold by the American, 2-0. However, Stephens continued to make too many errors, which briefly let Raducanu off the hook and the Briton broke back. It was short-lived: She mis-fired in the fifth game to concede another break, 2-3.
Both women were now spraying errors, unable to regain any rhythm: They were up to 29 errors between them for just six winners in this set alone. At last, though, Stephens found her range, held on to her advantage, 4-2, broke again, and served it out 6-2.
The Briton dug in at the start of the third, and after holding and then breaking Stephens, the flow of the first set returned, and she broke again. Stephens was slow to respond, but Raducanu then had to fend off three deuces through almost eight minutes for 5-0. After an hour and three-quarters, she served out her first Melbourne match-win, 6-1.
She will next play the 99-ranked Danka Kovinic, with the altogether tougher prospect of Simona Halep in Round 3. But the teenage Briton was tested in her first Major since her US Open fairytale run, and she passed with flying colours.
Raducanu was not the only high-profile Briton in the Tuesday schedule. Wild card Andy Murray, one of Australia’s favourite players, was making his first appearance in the draw since his tear-stained exit in five sets in the first round three years ago.
The five-time Melbourne finalist had drawn the No21 seed Nikoloz Basilashvili, who he beat after three and a quarter hours in Sydney last week: It was far from an ideal opener for the 34-year-old with the metal hip.
And as so often before, Murray found himself in a dogfight, taken to a fifth set after losing the fourth-set tiebreaker to the big-hitting Georgian. But the Briton seemed to have control of things with a quick break, 3-0, in the decider. However, Basilashvili was far from done, serving big, and willing to go the distance in long baseline exchanges. The Georgian won a 30-shot exchange to break back and hit a 13th ace to hold for 4-4.
Murray made a gutsy hold from 15-30 to force Basilashvili to serve to save the match, and sure enough, three nervy errors from the Georgian offered up three match points. Basilashvili responded with two winners, but Murray drew one last error to score his first win at the tournament since 2017, 6-1, 3-6, 6-4, 6-7(5), 6-4, in a little short of four hours.
It was an emotional moment, and Murray raised his arms to the heavens, then bent double to roar his relief. He went on to recall that last match, his loss to Roberto Bautista Agut in 2019:
“It’s been a tough three or four years… [This court] is where I thought I had potentially played my last match, but to win a five-set battle like that, I couldn’t have asked for more.”
He next plays qualifier Taro Daniel.
The only remaining seeded Briton in the draw after Cameron Norrie lost in the first round was Dan Evans, and he faced David Goffin, a former top-10 player now ranked 45 following an injury-blighted couple of years. Indeed the Belgian was forced to retire last week against Murray.
Evans had found a fine run of form thus far in 2022—much like last year in Australia—with five singles and doubles wins in the ATP Cup and a semi run in Sydney. Here, he took the first set with one break, 6-4, and then made an early break in the second set, only for Goffin to level in the seventh game.
However, Evans then went on a run of six games to serve out the second, 6-3, and raced through the third set as Goffin’s challenge evaporated in a slew of unforced errors. Evans’ 10th ace worked match point, and he took it at the first attempt, 6-0.
He will next play Arthur Rinderknech, ranked 58, who took five sets to beat Alexei Popyrin.
Luck was in short supply for the two qualifying Britons, though. Murray was followed onto the John Cain Arena by Liam Broady, who had qualified for his first Major draw Down Under, but was drawn against one of the biggest names in Australian tennis, Nick Kyrgios: It promised to be loud, fast and furious.
Kyrgios, who was back from a recent Covid isolation and months out of competition, broke in the first game, and then served for a love hold with a between-the-legs underarm delivery. He went on to serve it out, 6-4, and then broke immediately in the second. A 16th ace served Kyrgios to another set, 6-4.
Broady held his opening game in the third set, only for Kygrios to break in the third game. He was a man on a mission, in a match played at a high level and in great spirit, and went on to break for the match, 6-3.
It earned Kyrgios a firecracker of a contest against the top seed, Daniil Medvedev: A not-to-be-missed match of tennis and personalities.
Fellow qualifier Harriet Dart was perhaps the most unlucky Brit, drawn to face that BBC tennis correspondent and No7 seed, Swiatek, under the spotlight of the Rod Laver Arena. Dart started well, breaking for a 2-1 lead in the first set, but the Pole showed her quality with a run of five games, and took just 72 minutes to seal victory, 6-3, 6-0.
The sixth Brit in the mix was Heather Watson, ranked 94 after struggling to get wins under her belt since reaching the second round in Australia last year. Nevertheless she showed her usual fight to reach Round 2 again in Melbourne, beating No62, Mayar Sherif, 6-3, 5-7, 6-2. She will next play will play 29th seed Tamara Zidansek.
Kaia Kanepi beat No16 Angelique Kerber, 6-4, 6-3
Sorana Cirstea beat No20 Petra Kvitova, 6-2, 6-2
Maxime Cressy beat No22 John Isner, 7-6(2), 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-7(4), 6-4
Maddison Inglis beat No23 Leylah Fernandez, 6-4, 6-2
Richard Gasquet beat No29 Ugo Humbert, 3-6, 7-6(4), 7-6(3), 6-3