Emma Raducanu’s wait for a win over top-10 opposition goes on, after she was comfortably beaten 6-3, 6-1 in Indian Wells by world No 1 Iga Swiatek.
There is no shame in coming up second-best to Swiatek, who has been the dominant force in the game since Ashleigh Barty played her last professional match 14 months ago. Over that time-span, Swiatek has won 74 of 84 matches and developed a reputation for handing out “bagels” and “breadsticks” – tennis jargon for 6-0 and 6-1 sets.
Raducanu was just the latest recipient of one of these beatdowns, despite an encouraging start in which she kept Swiatek’s power game unbalanced enough to threaten an early break. The slide began when Raducanu herself was broken in the sixth game. Swiatek is a ruthless frontrunner, and spent the bulk of these 84 minutes powering groundstrokes into the corners.
The scoreline means that Raducanu has now played four matches against top-10 opposition – namely Swiatek twice, Jessica Pegula and Coco Gauff – without winning a set. But, on the upside, she has just turned in her best tournament since her miraculous feat of winning the US Open 18 months ago.
Raducanu has entered 24 events in that time without making much of an impression. Her best previous effort, and only other example of winning three matches at the same event, came in Seoul last September, where she retired from her semi-final against Jelena Ostapenko citing a damaged glute.
It had seemed highly unlikely that Raducanu’s spin-cycle of injuries and illnesses would come to an end, at least temporarily, in Indian Wells, given that she arrived with heavy strapping on both wrists, as well as some congestion lingering from her recent bout of tonsillitis.
But she said this week that she tries to use adversity as an incentive. And perhaps the downbeat expectations ended up working in her favour. After her first opponent, Danka Kovinic, self-destructed in a whirl of wild forehands, Raducanu despatched the recent Australian Open semi-finalist Magda Linette in straight sets, and then produced her best individual performance since that gilded US Open run: a gutsy 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory over 13th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia.
Here was a blueprint for the coming season, if Raducanu can only keep herself on the court for long enough to develop it. She played what her former coach Mark Petchey calls “tidal tennis”, moving in and out of the court as the rally demanded, and being quick to open up the angles by pouncing on the short ball.
Raducanu’s greatest asset is her athleticism, which – when her game is flowing – enables her to take the ball early and make up for her relative lack of stature, at least compared to Amazonian figures like the recent Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka. Haddad Maia is another one of these giants, a 6ft left-hander with bulging biceps, but Raducanu outfoxed her with her cheeky elan, playing the role of Jack from the beanstalk.
It takes physical preparedness, ball-striking confidence and mental stability to play in this freewheeling way – all characteristics which Raducanu has struggled to regather since her stunning arrival at the top of the game. But she clearly comfortable with her latest coach Sebastian Sachs, a serious-minded German with a fondness for data, and should leave the Californian desert feeling chipper about the coming weeks.
‘I think I’m going to be one of the best athletes on tour’
Raducanu’s three wins in Indian Wells may only have boosted her five places up the rankings ladder, to an expected No 72. But if she can report fit for Miami next week in the second part of the so-called “Sunshine Double”, she should be well placed to continue this mini-surge.
“I can take a positive week,” Raducanu told the BBC after the match. “I think I had a few good wins earlier against some great opponents. I did two good training weeks in London. They paid off to an extent but ultimately two weeks of training isn’t going to cut it against the world No 1 right now.
“I’m looking forward to playing her after I’ve got more time under my belt.
“Physically I feel like that’s going to be one of my biggest assets. I think that I’m going to be one of the best athletes on the tour, and that’s going to be a big part of my game.
“I would say there is a very long way to go, but I’m definitely starting the right work now.”
Sadly, it seems unlikely that Raducanu’s near-exact contemporary Jack Draper will be attending Miami. Draper is suffering from very similar issues, in terms of the physical demands of regular tour tennis, and he retired from his match against world No 2 Carlos Alcaraz citing an abdominal strain.
“My tennis is right there,” said Draper, who picked up the problem while beating Andy Murray on Monday night. “It’s just this body aspect which is going to take a bit of time and that is just something I’m going to have to accept.”