Raducanu comes into the first grand slam of the year in poor form, after a 6-0 6-1 thrashing by Elena Rybakina
Emma Raducanu cannot seem to catch a break. Having begun her season with a 6-0, 6-1 pasting at the hands of in-form Elena Rybakina, Raducanu has just discovered that her first grand slam match as US Open champion will pair her with another former US Open champion.
One benefit of winning a major out of nowhere is supposed to be easier draws in future, thanks to your newfound status as a seed. But there are always big names floating lower down 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 fulfilled the promise she showed by claiming that $3.7 million prize in 2017. She often gives the impression that she cannot be bothered with the smaller stops on the world tour, which is one reason why she stands at an unprepossessing No 68 in the world.
When the majors come around, though, Stephens is more motivated. She collected some big scalps at the slams last season, including Coco Gauff, Petra Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova, before tailing off quickly after the US Open had finished.
Perhaps this is just fortune evening itself out, after Raducanu’s favourable draw in New York last year. You may remember that she did not play anyone ranked higher than Belinda Bencic, then the world No 12.
Stephens is the worst kind of first-round opponent: a stylish ball-striker who also covers the court with effortless ease. She has the talent and athleticism – though not always the mindset – to be a serial champion. If she brings her best to the court, she will be extremely difficult to beat.
Stephens is a stylish hitter who could pose a tough challenge for any of the world's best
Credit: Getty Images
It is also true, however, that Stephens has spent the past week posting photographs of her wedding to former Sunderland striker Jozy Altidore, which took place on New Year’s Day. Raducanu’s legion of fans will be hoping that Stephens has neglected her tennis preparations as a result.
Amazingly, Raducanu will be playing her first match at the Australian Open since she competed in the juniors here in 2019, losing in straight sets in the first round. As the world No 18, she has leapfrogged several stages of development, and is now dealing with the inflated expectations created by her miraculous success in September.
She will be supported by her new coach Torben Beltz, the 45-year-old German who used to work with the former Wimbledon champion Angelique Kerber. Their build-up was supposed to start with an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi just before Christmas, but Raducanu contracted Covid and was forced to self-isolate for 10 days. This delay had knock-on effects on her training schedule, leading to her withdrawal from last week’s WTA event in Melbourne.
The only other Briton in the WTA top 100, Heather Watson, is to open her tournament against Mayar Sherif – the Egyptian player whom Raducanu beat in the final round of the US Open qualifying event in August.
In the men’s draw, Andy Murray can expect a sense of deja vu when he faces Georgia’s Nikoloz Basilashvili – the same player he beat in a 3hr 13min marathon in Sydney on Wednesday night. “He’s hitting the ball consistently bigger than anyone on the tour,” said Murray of Basilashvili, the world No 23, after that three-set win.
Dan Evans would have been due to take on David Goffin in Melbourne, but their encounter must now be in some doubt after Goffin – who was also playing against Murray in Sydney on Thursday – was forced to retire from that match with knee trouble.
Finally, last year’s Indian Wells champion Cameron Norrie will face the hotly tipped young American Sebastian Korda, whose father Petr won the title here in 1998. This looked a tricky draw on paper, although Korda tested positive for Covid in Adelaide last week, and had to spend a week in self-isolation as result.
Two more Britons – Liam Broady and Harriet Dart – are due to play the final round of qualifying overnight.
How do you think Emma Raducanu and the other Brits will fare Down Under? Let us know in the comments section