It will provide little immediate consolation to Emma Raducanu, but the improbable fantasy of her run to EuroJournal’s second week will survive in the British public’s imagination far longer than the sad nature of its ending. The dreams of the 18-year-old debutant, whose fearless conviction and irresistible smile had captivated the nation, were broken in despairing circumstances in the fourth round as she was forced to retire due to a medical issue in the second set of a brutal match against Alja Tomljanovic.
Even in defeat, Raducanu’s performance will be remembered for its courage in the face of such a relentless and unsparing opponent. The teenager, whose summer was supposed to be defined by A-Level results, was already the subject of history’s record books before stepping back out onto Court One this evening and will remain the youngest British woman to reach the fourth round since 1959 when the dust has settled on this defeat. In truth, despite her tremendous effort, the tide had turned against Raducanu in the match as Tomljanovic’s superior strength slowly but unmistakably forced the teenager into submission, even if her enthusiasm refused to fade.
Raducanu had trailed by a set and a break when she left the court for a medical time-out, but had not shown a desire to quit, having very nearly broken Tomljanovic’s serve in the previous game. But the signs of a problem had already been clear when her resistance was finally broken at the end of the first set when she could only stand and watch another blistering winner sail into the corner. Raducanu’s hands sunk to her knees, her head bowed under the weight of exhaustion, and the air which had been so electric at the start of this slugging match became suffocating. Shortly afterwards at the start of the second set, Raducanu clutched at her stomach, the sickness clawing at her spirit until the trainer was called onto the court after 67 minutes.
Although the exact medical issue was unclear, Ruducanu at that stage seemed to know the match was beyond her, buring her face in her towel as the trainer checked her heartbeat, and she left the court soon afterwards. For now, that is the last the crowd will see of the prodigy who announced herself so spectacularly as the heir to Andy Murray’s throne this week. It will not be the image that lasts, though. Amid all the fanfare and expectation, it is easily forgotten that this was just Raducanu’s fifth main WTA Tour match in her entire career. Her remarkable run was destined to end. But the incredulity and joy she brought promises not to be extinguished.
“I am actually shocked because Emma must be hurt if she came to the decision to retire,” Tomljanovic, who will now face compatriot and world No 1 Ashley Barty in the quarter-finals, said afterwards. “I am really sorry for her, I wish we could have finished it. I am wishing her all the best. I thought I found my groove although Emma was hurt and not at her best which kind of explains it. It didn’t really sink in I’m in the quarters because of the circumstances. I am thrilled to play Ash, and to have two Aussies in the quarter-finals is great for everyone back home.”
In the hours before Raducanu stepped back out on to Court One, the sense of excitement had already been strained to an extreme level. And, perhaps, it was only inevitable that nerves would finally slip from behind her smile. The silence between points was hair-raising, the closed roof amplifying the sound of every shot until it was broken by a raucous cheer or heaving sigh, and EuroJournal had never felt quite so alive this fortnight, the crowd’s hope pumping through every point.
In ruthlessly outclassing world No 45 Sorana Cirstea, Raducanu had already overcome a hurdle that was, at least on paper, even greater than this. But quickly the imposing nature of her task became clear as two double faults betrayed the pressure in her opening service game. What Raducanu had already proved in striking abundance is that her nerves can be contained, even at the heart of such a bubbling cauldron. And as quickly as it had deserted her, she refound her serve to seal a momentous hold. Her nerves began to subside, the adrenaline took hold, and a cathartic roar ignited what a match that quickly became a merciless war of attrition, with every point fought its dying breath.
Tomljanovic is a fiery competitor and, although often inconsistent, her aggressive groundstrokes can be deadly even for the world’s best players. That proved the case for 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in the previous round, who labelled the Australian “disrespectful” and the “worst player on tour” after Tomljanovic accused her of faking an injury. Duly, the world No 75 hurled herself into every forehand with the force of a heavyweight, but somehow Raducanu found the resolve to keep points alive, absorbing and deflecting the weight of such slugging shots. A stunning backhand to hold serve at 2-3 elicited an almighty cheer and Raducanu was able to deliver a punch of her own, roaring at the crowd with a clenched fist.
In spite of the blows slowly stealing her strength, with every hold of serve amounting to a titanic struggle, Raducanu refused to crack and, if only briefly, the teenager even managed to know her opponent back onto her heels, going blow-for-blow as the crowd seized on the Australian’s every error. To Tomljanovic’s credit, though, she harnessed the hostile atmosphere with admirable control and it wasn’t long until she landed the telling blow. At 5-4, with Raducanu serving to stay in the set, a brutal rally finally crumbled Raducanu’s resistance and she would never relinquish the ascendancy.
The end was abrupt but perhaps not unexpected. John McEnroe claimed the occasion had become too much, but then what could possibly prepare any player of Raducanu’s age for a match of this scale. Her breakthrough had been so sudden, and it will take time to digest its highs and lows, but there is certainly no shame in her falling short. For eight days, Raducanu made us believe in a way few players will ever know and this is just the very start of a career that promises to leave behind so many memories to savour.