Emma Raducanu can’t seem to get a break. After starting her season with a 6-0, 6-1 sticking at the hands of in-form Elena Rybakina, Raducanu has just found out that her first Grand Slam match as US Open champion will pair her with another former US Open champion.
One of the benefits of winning a major out of nowhere is supposed to be easier draws in the future, thanks to your new seeded status. But there are always big names floating lower in the rankings, which is where Sloane Stephens – who won in New York five years ago – has been hanging out for a while.
At 28, Stephens has never lived up to the promise she showed when claiming that $3.7million prize in 2017. She often looks like she can’t be bothered with the smallest of stops. of the world tour, which is one of the reasons why she is holding on to a No Endorsement. 68 in the world.
When the majors arrive, however, Stephens is more motivated. She picked up big scalps at slams last season, including Coco Gauff, Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, before coming to an abrupt halt after the US Open ended.
Maybe it was just fortune that was at stake, after Raducanu’s favorable draw in New York last year. You may recall that she hasn’t played against anyone higher ranked than Belinda Bencic, then world number 12.
Stephens is the worst kind of first-round opponent: a sleek ball-striker who also covers ground with effortless ease. She has the talent and the athleticism – but not always the mindset – to be a serial champion. If she gives her best on the pitch, she will be extremely difficult to beat.
It’s also true, however, that Stephens has spent the last week posting photos from his wedding to former Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore, which took place on New Year’s Day. Raducanu’s legion of fans hope Stephens neglected his tennis preparations as a result.
Amazingly, Raducanu will be playing her first match at the Australian Open since competing as a junior here in 2019, losing in straight sets in the first round. As world No. 18, she has gone through several stages of development and is now facing the exaggerated expectations created by her miraculous success in September.
She will be supported by her new coach Torben Beltz, the 45-year-old German who worked with former Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber. Their buildup was supposed to start with an exhibition in Abu Dhabi just before Christmas, but Raducanu contracted Covid and was forced to self-isolate for 10 days. The delay has impacted his training schedule, resulting in his withdrawal from last week’s WTA event in Melbourne.
The only other Briton in the WTA top 100, Heather Watson, is due to open her tournament against Mayar Sherif – the Egyptian player Raducanu beat in the final round of US Open qualifying in August.
In the men’s draw, Andy Murray can expect a sense of deja vu when he takes on Georgian Nikoloz Basilashvili – the same player he beat in a 3:13 marathon in Sydney on Wednesday night. “He always hits the ball bigger than anyone on the tour,” Murray of Basilashvili, world No. 23, said after the three-set victory.
Dan Evans should have faced David Goffin in Melbourne, but their meeting must now be in doubt after Goffin – who also played against Murray in Sydney on Thursday – was forced to withdraw from that game with knee problems.