Emma Raducanu cut a relaxed figure during her pre-tournament press conference in New York on Friday, laughing and joking about the car sickness that plagued her on the morning of last year’s US Open final.
But Raducanu must be well aware that she must beat Alize Cornet on Tuesday night if she is to avoid a dramatic drop down the rankings – which could see her sink into the mid-80s.
Despite her crazy demeanor in the interview room, Raducanu’s workout earlier in the day wasn’t particularly encouraging.
She left the court in stormy fashion midway through her 1 hour 45 minute session with Russian world No28 Ekaterina Alexandrova, later admitting she had “a few blisters, a bit of a pinch here and there. It’s just one of those weird days where you… feel a little out of it.”
Like last year, New York could end up defining Raducanu’s season – though this time they have the potential to send her in the opposite direction. This is the way of a rolling 12-month ranking system, in which every dramatic success must be repeated a year later to avoid relegation.
There was a sense Friday, as she spoke with her coach Dimitry Tursunov in the middle of that practice, that Raducanu was feeling the pressure of her return to New York.
Apart from the challenge of defending her title, there is more here for the British No1 than at any other event this season. That is, 2,040 ranking points.
Raducanu, 19, is scheduled to begin her campaign during Tuesday’s evening session at Louis Armstrong Stadium, the US Open’s second-string arena. She faces a tough test in the first round in France’s Cornet, the world No37 and an experienced player. If she fails to beat Cornet, Raducanu will gain just 10 ranking points from the tournament and could see her drop from 11th in the world to around 85th.
When asked about the pressure of defending her title on Friday, she dismissed the question like a woman tired of dealing with the same inquiries every week.
“I think you guys probably think more about pressure and ranking than I do,” he said. “I think a title defense is something the press makes up. I take it one match at a time. Like, every player is very capable in this draw. I just focus on what I’m doing, on my own trajectory. As I said last year, I’m going to do things my way.”
The success of the US Open title meant an unprecedented climb up the ladder
It’s easy to forget that she entered last season’s US Open – only her second major event in history at 18 – ranked 150th in the world and had to make it through the qualifiers to reach the main draw. Her 10-fight streak and impressive win brought her to worldwide recognition. It also meant she rose to 23rd in the rankings – an unprecedented rise that reflects her improbable victory.
This inflated ranking earned her direct entry into every major tournament as well as the most prestigious events elsewhere on the tennis calendar.
While this has provided invaluable experience over the past few months and helped her into the top 10, it’s no secret that Raducanu has struggled to rediscover the same success she did in New York last year. He has battled through nagging injuries and early round losses as he went toe-to-toe with the world’s best every week.
Falling outside the top 80 would mean a long way to try to regain her current spot, but it may be a more careful reflection of the 2022 season. Her win-loss record so far is 13-15, ranking her 59th place in the ‘WTA match’ in the final later this year.
On Friday, Raducanu became at least more engaged and upbeat when asked what memories came flooding back when she first returned to Flushing Meadows last week.
“The last memory I have of it [from 2021] it is before the final that morning,” Raducanu said. “I felt so sick in the car here. I just blamed it on being sick. But I think I was also a little nervous.
“The whole car journey, my head was in my hands. I was like, “What’s going on?” As soon as I got out of the car, I just promised myself, ‘Look, you’re faking it, do your best,’ and it worked well that day.”