For all that Emma Raducanu has achieved and how far she has come over only a few fleeting weeks as a full-time professional, one of the moments she was still awaiting was a win against a top player. Until she stepped onto Arthur Ashe Stadium, she had never faced a top-40 opponent or tested her strengths against the best.
When the time came against one of the most in-form players, the Olympic champion, she was right there. Raducanu continued her wondrous summer by outplaying Belinda Bencic, the surging 11th seed, winning 6-3, 6-4 to reach her first grand slam semi-final at the US Open.
It cannot be repeated enough: this is Raducanu’s first US Open, her second grand slam tournament and only her fourth tour level event. She only just got here, yet she is now the fourth women’s singles qualifier to reach a grand slam semi-final and the youngest US Open semi-finalist since Maria Sharapova in 2005, a distinction achieved a day earlier by 19 year-old Leylah Fernandez.
Raducanu has now leapfrogged Johanna Konta and Heather Watson, Britain’s longtime top two, to become the British number one. She will be ranked 51st on Monday, shaving over 300 places from her ranking of 366 in June.
“Playing Belinda, she’s such a great opponent and she’s in unbelievable form,” said Raducanu. “Her ball speed definitely caught me off-guard because she hits the ball so hard. So I had to try and adjust and adapt. It was a really tough match for me. I’m so, so happy to have come through.”
After arriving in the quarter-final with 13 wins in her past 14 matches, Bencic began the contest with a level reflecting her confidence. She hit cleanly and constantly robbed time from Raducanu with her early ball striking. In the opening game, she attacked the Raducanu serve with force and pressured her forehand, immediately breaking serve before building a 3-1 lead.
But Raducanu steadily settled into the match. First she pieced together a couple of comfortable holds with precise serving, while making an extremely high number of service returns and opting for more patience with her attacks. Her relentless return consistency soon showed at 2-3 as Bencic double faulted and sprayed a backhand error.
The momentum had shifted and throughout the past three weeks of continued success, one of Raducanu’s most impressive qualities has been her ability to ride momentum. She held for 4-3 with a heavy forehand down the line and then, after continuously landing successful returns, she pounced.
At deuce Raducanu’s superior athleticism made the difference. On the 20th shot of an absurd rally, she chased a forehand at full sprint and then drilled it for another winner down the line.
Moments later, Raducanu broke serve and ended the set flying. Her serve was impeccable and she pounded groundstrokes, calmly winning the set and closer to the semi-finals.
One of the clear differences between Bencic and Raducanu’s prior opponents came immediately in the second set. In previous matches, Raducanu had snatched the momentum and never let it go. But down 15-30, Bencic produced a sublime backhand winner under immense pressure. After holding serve to start the set, Bencic immediately threatened to start her own run by creating two break points on Raducanu’s serve.
No matter. Raducanu drilled successive straight ahead backhand and forehand winners to get back to deuce. She saved a third with an unreturned serve and held for 1-1. As the set wore on and she established a break, Raducanu continued to land consistent, deep returns, served well and her athleticism was a clear edge in the long exchanges.
As the tension rose, Raducanu faced 0-30 deficits in her final two service games. Both times steadied herself, landed first serves and recovered to reach a semi-final that did not seem likely only a few weeks ago.
“I was 0-30 in my last couple of service games,” Raducanu said. “To hold was pretty big, literally one point at a time. Just trying to focus on what I can control – my serve, landing first serves. Belinda is an incredibly tough opponent and she was going to fight all the way until the end.”
Throughout her time at the US Open, as she has been asked about the thriving young players in New York and other contemporaries who have spent the past 18 months growing while she did not compete, Raducanu has constantly affirmed everyone has their own path.
What a unique and astoundingly fast one it has been. Even for all of the hype and widespread belief that has accompanied her in British circles, such success so soon did not seem on the cards. Yet, she has arrived. She will now compete against either Karolina Pliskova or Maria Sakkari for her first grand slam final. – Guardian