The WTA’s newcomer of the year for 2021, Emma Raducanu, didn’t end 2021 – or start 2022, for that matter – the way the US Open champion had hoped. Raducanu walked onto Margaret Court Arena for the first time as she made her Australian Open debut. For her first-ever match at the Open, she drew a former champion in her own right, Sloane Stephens. Typically, this is a match you would hope to see in later rounds, not the first round, as both are tremendous tennis players.
Stephens has been criticized for her inconsistencies over the years, after winning her US Open championship in 2017. A harsh but fair critique of the American’s game. Since her grand slam win in 2017, Stephens has seemingly mentally and physically checked out of matches on several occasions. Upon completing the first set, the eye test would have told you this would fall under one of the inconsistent outings of Stephens career.
24 points were scored by Raducanu in the first set, with Stephens scoring just three, in a dominating performance that ended in only 17 minutes. Stephens was broken in the first set’s second, fourth, and sixth game and committed six more unforced errors (8-to-2).
While people tend to focus on Stephens’s shortcomings, she is a veteran, and she knows how to settle herself down and did just that in the second set. Winning that set 6-2, and evening the match was where many on Twitter questioned whether Raducanu was mentally tough enough to overcome the momentum shift. Having her serve broken three times in the second set looked to validate that claim. Stephens was able to take control of the set with her five forehand winners, an awe-inspiring combination of power and precision. When Stephens forehand is working, it’s one of the best in tennis. Stephens took advantage of the short rallies (0-4 shots) and mid-length (5-8 shot) rallies, winning 36 points to Raducanu’s 27.
In the third set, the momentum shifted yet again. Raducanu got out to a 5-0 lead, breaking Stephens serve twice during the stretch. Raducanu dominated in the short rallies again, doubling Stephens with 10 points. The difference in the match was Raducanu’s ability to close out games, as the 19-year old won six-of-eight break points, opposed to Stephens three-of-eight. Play at the net was a factor as Stephens had a 55% success rate to Raducanu’s 78%. Coincidentally, a Stephens drop shot attempt ended the match with Raducanu getting the win, 6-0, 2-6, 6,1.
Raducanu will meet 27-year old Danka Kovinic from Montenegro in the second round. Kovinic, ranked 97th in the world, beat qualifier Su Jeong Jang (21) in the first round 6-3, 2,-6, 6-4.