Emma Raducanu: the greatest tennis tournament ever played

It happens a lot: A sportswriter tries to make a splash and say something provocative in the immediate aftermath of a big sports moment. A writer makes grand, large-scale statement saying this event, which just ended, was really the best, or the biggest, or the greatest.

Usually, that kind of big-swinging talk falls well short of the mark. Millions upon millions of other events had occurred in the past. To actually elevate a specific moment or achievement to NUMBER ONE out of all those other millions of events is — 99 percent of the time — really stupid and shortsighted.

Recency bias. Prisoner of the moment. Knee-jerk commentary. No historical perspective or awareness. I get it. I am usually the guy warning other people not to make the instant take or the immediate reaction which ignores decades if not centuries of human history.

However, if the instant reaction is bad 99 percent of the time, there IS an allowance for the occasional exception… and this is it.

Emma Raducanu’s run to the 2021 U.S. Open women’s singles championship IS the greatest single-tournament performance by any tennis player EVER.

Recency bias. Prisoner of the moment. Knee-jerk commentary. I know those comments will come, and they have… but I’m ready to defend this claim.

Let’s start by simply saying that when discussing the greatest performance by a tennis player, a key ground rule for discussion and evaluation is the player’s own personal situation. This cannot be removed or separated from the larger debate. It is the foundational element of my claim, in fact.

On Sunday afternoon — 24 hours after the women’s final — Novak Djokovic will try to win the Grand Slam for the first time in tennis since Steffi Graf in 1988 and for the first time on the men’s side since Rod Laver in 1969.

Djokovic has beaten Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the same major tournament. He first did this at the 2011 U.S. Open. He saved two match points against Federer in the semifinals and beat Nadal in a high-quality final.

One could certainly say that is the most impressive single tournament any tennis player has ever played. I’m not eliminating that from the conversation, in case anyone had the wrong idea. I am, however, elevating Raducanu’s feat over Djokovic in 2011 — and Mats Wilander winning Roland Garros as a teenager in 1982, and Boris Becker winning Wimbledon in 1985, as a few other examples of remarkable individual tennis tournaments — for three simple reasons:

  1. Raducanu’s level of main tour experience was far lower than what Wilander and Becker had in their first teenage major titles.
  2. She was ranked 150, and not because she was injured for two years after being a top-10 player. She had not yet made an ascent to the ranking which makes any tennis player a credible threat to win majors.
  3. Raducanu won 10 matches — all without losing a set — instead of the normal seven matches needed to win a major.

Let’s start with item one and go through the three-item list, unpacking some relevant details.

Want to know how many main-tour events Rafael Nadal — widely and accurately regarded as a rare tennis player who won big early in his career and attained mastery of the sport as a teenager — played before winning his first major title as a teenager? 41.

One in 2002, 11 tournaments in 2003, 18 in 2004, and 11 in 2005 preceding Roland Garros.

Want to know how many main-tour events Wilander played before his Roland Garros title in 1982? At least 16, maybe a few more.

Becker played at least 12-15 tournaments before winning Wimbledon in 1985. Monica Seles played something in the vicinity of 15 tournaments before her first teenage title at Roland Garros in 1990.

Emma Raducanu had played all of three main-tour events — Nottingham, Wimbledon and San Jose — before her U.S. Open run. (If you want to count Chicago, a 125 event, you could, which would make it four, but that’s right on the threshold between minor leagues and major leagues in tennis. You can decide there.) She didn’t even win a match in the main draw of Nottingham or San Jose, either. So, she had won main-draw matches at ONE MAIN-TOUR EVENT before she then won the United States Open on her first try.

Relative to her situation — relative to the situation facing a specific tennis player at a particular point in time — she exceeded all imagination. She transcended what anyone thought humanly possible.

That is what I am trying to get at when I say her performance is the greatest single-tournament performance in human history.

Let’s move to item number two: world ranking.

Djokovic was World No. 1 when he beat Federer and Nadal at the 2011 U.S. Open. Yes, it was a mighty, memorable, mountainous, massive, and magnificent feat… but this was a World No. 1 player in the middle of a dominant 2011 season. Djokovic was the favorite at that tournament. He was expected to win. His achievement isn’t made less enormous by those facts, but it IS made less improbable, less astonishing.

Emma Raducanu has astonished the tennis world more than any other player has. Who would argue with this?

OF COURSE, the caliber of Raducanu’s opponents was and is nowhere near the caliber of Djokovic’s 2011 opponents in New York, or — for example — Steffi Graf’s opponents in the late 1980s. Graf would beat Chris Evert and then Martina Navratilova at Wimbledon. That’s on par with Djokovic beating Federer and Nadal. Caliber of opposition is certainly a legitimate factor here, but it’s not number one. If you account for the player’s situation entering a tournament, Raducanu’s situation was the most precarious, or off the radar, or unheralded, or any other description you prefer. It is the most improbable major title of the Open Era, and I don’t think that’s an especially close call.

Bianca Andreescu’s 2019 U.S. Open was surprising to a degree, but we had already seen her win Indian Wells and Canada. There was a true lead-up to her title in New York. Beating Serena Williams in the final rates as more impressive than beating Leylah Fernandez in a final, but relative to her situation, Andreescu had already established herself as a force on tour.

Raducanu, who had a nice little Wimbledon run but then ran into health problems in the fourth round, had not done so. RELATIVE TO HER SITUATION, winning 20 out of 20 sets in New York is simply mind-blowing on a scale unmatched by any other tennis player in history.

Let’s move to item number three, the simplest yet most powerful reason of all: Raducanu won 10 matches, not seven, to win this title, and she didn’t even lose a set. She didn’t even need a tiebreaker to win any of those 20 sets. She needed seven games only ONCE.

She basically did what Iga Swiatek did at Roland Garros last October — with three match wins and an extra week of tennis on her plate.

Raducanu is the first tennis player in the Open Era to win a major as a qualifier. That is a completely unprecedented tennis achievement. Other players have won the Grand Slam. Other players have done extremely difficult things, such as Djokovic winning four majors in a row (he’ll try for a second four-peat on Sunday, but this time all within the same calendar year).

No one — NO ONE — had done what Emma Raducanu finally did on Saturday. Not in 53 years of Open Era competition — that’s over 210 different major tournaments — had anyone produced what Raducanu produced. That this run wasn’t just successful, but also legitimately dominant, from a player who had played only two main-tour events and had won matches in only one main-draw tour event preceding this U.S. Open, makes it the greatest single tennis tournament any tennis player has ever played.

I welcome comments on other tournaments from other players. Maybe there’s something I missed about Wilander 1982 at Roland Garros or Becker 1985 at Wimbledon. Let the conversation continue, by all means.

Just let it be known: Anyone will have to assemble a formidable collection of facts and details to match what Emma Raducanu just did in New York. This isn’t an open and shut case — the debate should continue on this point — but you all have a tall mountain to climb if you are going to take a contrary position here.

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