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X Factor: Emma Raducanu's star rises into maiden major semifinal, easily dispatches Bencic at US Open
The Brit is the first qualifier in the Open Era to reach the final four at Flushing Meadows.
Published Sep 08, 2021
You Should Know: Jon Wertheim on Emma Raducanu
It takes that extra something to win a major title: momentum, luck, and those other intangibles that work in tandem with technique and fitness to create a champion.
Emma Raducanu dispelled any lingering doubts about her own “X” factor on Wednesday at the US Open, dismantling Olympic Gold medalist Belinda Bencic, 6-3, 6-4 to reach her first major semifinal and win a 16th straight set—a streak that stretches back into qualifying.
"I have just been focusing one day at a time, taking care of each day," Raducanu said after the match. "When you're playing tournaments, you just get into this sort of autopilot mode of your routines, recovering on the day off in between.
"I didn't expect to be here at all. I mean, I think my flights were booked at the end of qualifying, so it's a nice problem to have!"
The Brit has dropped just 38 games in eight matches, and showed impeccable poise to weather a nervy finish and bundle Bencic out of Arthur Ashe Stadium in just over 80 minutes.
"Out there on the court today, I was saying to myself, 'This could be the last time you play on Ashe, so might as well just go for it and enjoy everything.'"
Raducanu has quickly gone international after becoming a hometown hero at her home tournament of Wimbledon, where she reached the fourth round as an 18-year-old ranked outside the Top 300. Her finish to the fortnight, however, occurred under the roof—and under a cloud—when she was forced to retire to Ajla Tomljanovic with breathing difficulties.
With so much suddenly expected of the untested teenager, how would Raducanu rebound? She wisely opted to spend the summer out of the spotlight, playing smaller events where she gained match experience and rebuilt her confidence, scoring solid wins over the likes of Alison Van Uytvanck en route to her first WTA 125K final in Chicago.
"They were very good for me to adjust to the hard courts, because it's completely different to the grass. You get away with a lot less, I would say, and after four weeks, I think that building up the levels at the tournaments, my game got better. With each higher level tournament I played, I had to raise my game.
"So I think that I worked my way up to this level gradually but, yeah, the amount of matches I have had has really helped with my confidence."
Surviving the extreme heat of the US Open’s qualifying tournament, Raducanu rode the wave and continued collecting wins at an impressive pace—displaying a knack for match management that compensated for a draw that was unquestionably less flashy than that of fellow teen Leylah Fernandez.
"I honestly think it's great," Bencic said of the teen sensations. "It's great for tennis. It's obviously great stories. I just really hope that everyone will protect them and will hope the best for them and not try to, you know, kind of not destroy but, you know, put so much pressure and so much hype around them so it just gets too much.
"I just hope everyone will stay and will really hope the best for them so they can just develop and kind of in peace also a little bit."
Reps have been essential to Raducanu’s rise, so that when she returned to the big stage to take on Shelby Rogers, she erased all memory of the Tomljanovic encounter with a 6-2, 6-1 drubbing.
Awaiting her in the quarterfinals was Bencic. Fresh off her aforementioned Olympic triumph in Tokyo, she not only represented a significant uptick in caliber but could also match Raducanu for momentum: the 2019 semifinalist was similarly yet to drop a set in Flushing Meadows.
An early 3-1 lead appeared to bring the Brit back to earth; it instead galvanized her to find another level entirely.
Reeling off five straight games, Raducanu began injecting some much-needed pace into the blustery Ashe Stadium conditions, ending spirited rallies with the textbook technique reminiscent of idols like Simona Halep and Li Na.
By the second set Bencic was out of ideas; even as Raducanu offered openings late in the match, the Swiss lacked the confidence and firepower to take her less-experience opposition off her game. From 0-30 down in the final game, Raducanu brought forth that extra something: an ace took the teen to match point. She would end the contest with a healthy 23 winners to just 12 unforced errors, and a supportive American crowd eager to see the young star shine brighter against either former finalist Karolina Pliskova or Maria Sakkari.
"Let's say I have a hunger to win every single match I play," Raducanu conceded, "so I don't want to get ahead of myself at all, because I just like to take it one day at a time. If I take care of what I can control, then that's going to give me the best chance.
"Until now, I think it's worked very well for me not getting ahead of myself, just focusing on one point at a time. It's got me to this stage, and I'm not going to change anything."
At a major tournament lacking some of the more familiar latter-stage staples, it was natural to ask who would have the extra something required to fill the gap left by the Williams sisters, or even the recently-retired Maria Sharapova.
Two teens have swiftly touched down to provide a stylistic contrast worth investing in over the next decade, but while Fernandez easily impresses with her resume, mind Raducanu’s technique and long-term potential. A slow burn can bring just as much heat.