Why Sloane Stephens could be the blueprint for Emma Raducanu

Emma Raducanu will face Sloane Stephens in the first round of the Australian Open

Credit: AFP

In an interview last month, Sloane Stephens was asked what advice she would give to US Open champion Emma Raducanu. "Blessings to her, I wish her well," she said, adding: "At some point you come back down and it’s very emotional – I will say that. It’s brutal."

They are sobering words from Raducanu’s next opponent, with the pair drawn against each other for next week’s mouth-watering Australian Open first round. But, as a surprise champion at Flushing Meadows herself in 2017, Stephens was speaking from experience.

She jumped near-on 900 ranking places in the month ahead of her US Open crowning moment, coming out of nowhere – as Raducanu did – to win her first major aged 24. Before Raducanu came along, she was the lowest ranked player to ever win the title in the Open era.

With those great parallels, come also some major lessons which Raducanu can take from Stephens’s career thus far. The obvious similarities lie in their shared US Open triumphs, but there is more to be learned when you look back to Stephens’s original breakout moment.

Like Raducanu, she peaked early. Aged 19, she caused a huge stir in 2013 when she beat Serena Williams to the Australian Open semi-final. Some of tennis’s greats noted it as a changing of the guard, hailing her as Williams’s heir to the throne and Chris Evert called the win "a big day for tennis".

Florida-born and California-raised, both of Stephens’s parents were star athletes, and she was tipped for greatness when she was spotted aged seven at her local tennis club, by former top 100 player Francisco Gonzalez. She made her WTA debut at Indian Wells weeks before her 17th birthday, and made steady progress up the rankings with her confident ground strokes and incomparable defensive speed.

After her Australian Open breakthrough, she made a run to the last eight later that year at Wimbledon, but soon her results went awry. A few years of inconsistency, when she grew tired of being labelled as the next big thing, followed. It is a feeling Raducanu will no doubt relate to in the months and years to come, as she aims to follow up her phenomenal 2021.

"Expectations are sometimes unrealistic, especially for younger players," Stephens said recently, speaking on the Tennis.com Podcast. "Emma, she’s a British national hero. Being from the US, winning the US Open is super important, but I’m one of many hundreds of athletes that make a ton of money [so] after a month it wasn’t that cool anymore, which I’m thankful for… When you carry the weight of a whole country it’s very different. I haven’t had that pressure but I do know that it’s very tough."

Stephens spent 11 months out with a foot injury from July 2016, which saw her plummet to world no. 957, but also reinvigorated her love for the game. She ploughed through the field in New York weeks later, beating a young Ash Barty, Venus Williams and fellow major-final debutant Madison Keys to the title. She reached the Roland Garros final the following year, but more mixed results have come in the last three years.

While Raducanu’s career has been called topsy turvy, in winning a major at only her second attempt, Stephens’s has played hot and cold, as periods of losing streaks and mediocrity followed her most thrilling, odds-beating highs. Since peaking at world No. 3 in 2018, she has stumbled down the world rankings to 68th and last year had to go through qualifying for a tour-level tournament for the first time in nine years.

But Stephens, now 28, has spoken of learning bigger lessons off the court in the past year. Last January, she tragically lost her aunt, and both grandparents to Covid-19, while she was in the Australian Open bubble, and had to attend her grandparents’ funerals on Zoom from her hotel room. She has since called it her greatest regret that she "prioritised [her] tennis over things that were happening in [her] life”. 

Her form right now remains somewhat of an unknown. She last played on tour at Indian Wells in October, as well as the Billie Jean King Cup in November, before she took time off to wed her long-time partner and former Sunderland player Jozy Altidore last month.

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As Raducanu embarks on her first full season on tour, she is navigating the still very new and inevitable experience of losing. Her 6-0, 6-1 thrashing to Elena Rybakina on Tuesday was her first match of the year and the only competitive preparation she will have before playing Stephens early next week. Not exactly the confidence boost you need ahead of facing a fellow major champion. 

She will not know if she is set to meet a formidable or flaky version of Stephens. But if Stephens’s career can teach Raducanu anything, it is that fortunes can change on a dime.

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