Nervous beginnings for Centre Court darling Raducanu

Last year’s US Open champion has struggled to maintain Grand Slam-winning levels

Maybe not the fairy tale beginning, it did, however, have a pleasing end for the partisans.

For this year’s pet of the Centre Court, Emma Raducanu, came up good when it occasionally seemed like her first match would be another step in explaining to the tennis world how the winner of last year’s US Open, could not since last September catch a kick in a stampede.

Since her historic and astonishing victory as a qualifier and a rookie at last year’s US Grand Slam event, where she strung together ten matches without dropping a set, Raducanu has won more high-end sponsors than competitive matches. The work in progress was there to be seen again against a dangerous opponent in Belgian Alison van Uytvanck as she played herself out of and then into the match, winning 6-4, 6-4 in 100 battling minutes.

Following weeks of concern over her fitness, after she retired hurt just seven games into her opening match at Nottingham earlier this month, it was a gutsy performance on her first outing on the famous court. She played stoically throughout her sketchy play, especially a forehand that was way off range throughout. But she toughed out the match and that should stand to her.

Luckily for the number 10 seed her opponent seemed just as nervous as the pair played almost 18 minutes in the first set to decide just the two first games. But it was the 19-year-old, who best fought off the rash of nerves, saving three break points in her opening service game, to then break van Uytvanck’s serve, drop her own the next game and then reclaim it again for 5-4. No one was quire sure how it would end.

Raducanu finally served out the set and after two advantage points won it in 52 minutes.

The second set began with a mammoth first game, which went to deuce seven times on the van Uytvanck serve. When she finally pulled though after too many poor shots from Raducanu, the crowd fell into silent concern for their local hopeful. But resilience has become part of her armoury and while the pair swapped service breaks mid second set, Raducanu decisively broke serve for 5-4 and served out for the match.

“It was an amazing experience on Centre Court. It was the first time I played on there. From the moment I walked out through those gates, I could really just feel the energy and the support and everyone was behind me from the word ‘go’” said Raducanu.

“I just really tried to cherish every single point on there. Yeah, played every point like it could have been one of my last on that court.”

That Raducanu was wearing the logo of Rafa Nadal in her first match did not escape attention either.

“Of course, I think Rafa just embodies fight, that sort of energy,” she explained. “That’s what I’m bringing in. In terms of energy-wise, I think that I have had a tough year, like it’s no secret. It is all worth it just to go out on Centre Court and get a win like that. I definitely am very happy to be here. All the lessons I’ve taken from the last year will only hold me in good stead.”

Both Ons Jabeur and Anett Knotaveit, although far from household names, came through their first-round matches with some ease.

Tunisian third seed, Jabeur, overpowered Swedish qualifier Mirjam Bjorklund to be the first big gun through to the second round with a 6-1 6-3 victory. After reaching a career-high world ranking of two, the 2021 quarter-finalist served strongly and dominated from the baseline against the 125th-ranked Bjorklund, who was making her Wimbledon debut this year.

Estonian Kontaveit, the second seed at Wimbledon, beat American Bernarda Pera 7-5, 6-1. She will play German Jule Niemeier in the second round.

“It’s been pretty exciting, being seeded second. I have had health issues recently and didn’t play any lead-up tournaments to Wimbledon. I didn’t come into this tournament with a lot of confidence,” said Kontaveit spreading a little Estonian misery around the field. A lot of eyes will be how that goes over the next two weeks.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times