One can imagine that a lot of people in the tennis world have a lot of opinions about Emma Raducanu’s early exit from Indian Wells on Friday night.
Losing her first match at one of the bigger tournaments of the year, nearly four weeks after claiming the U.S. Open championship, will naturally elicit all the obvious reactions from various corners of the tennis community:
“CAN’T DEAL WITH SUCCESS!”
“CAN’T CARRY THE BURDEN OF EXPECTATIONS!”
“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THE TOUR FIGURES HER OUT?”
You know the drill. You know all these reactions will proliferate as a result of this loss. Raducanu won’t be in the WTA Finals, so this loss will be one of the last notable moments of her 2021 season. We probably won’t get another significant look at Raducanu before the 2022 Australian Open. She will field plenty of questions from the global press about handling prosperity and carrying expectations. We know this.
Yet, is there actually a lesson to be found in her loss, a real indicator of what might happen in Melbourne in January or in the 2022 tennis season on a broader level?
Please resist the temptation to think there is a big, bright, shiny meaning in this defeat at the hands of talented underperformer Aliaksandra Sasnovich.
Much of the 2021 tennis season has been “normal” in the sense that crowds have returned, tournaments have been played in their regular spots on the calendar, and the flow of the season is recognizable, unlike the distortions and disruptions of 2020. Yet, Indian Wells is a conspicuous exception to this larger flow of tennis this year. Given that the Southern California desert will stage yet another iteration of this tournament in just six months, and given that Indian Wells is not — in 2021 — the lead-in tournament for the rest of the season (a tone-setter for what follows on the calendar), this October version of the so-called “fifth major” doesn’t contain the heft and centrality it usually does.
This is a departure from normalcy.
All that aside, Emma Raducanu just did something extraordinary in New York. The whole point of doing something extraordinary is that it wasn’t remotely expected or predictable. “NORMAL” means losing plenty of matches and going through struggles. Raducanu won 20 of 20 sets at the U.S. Open as a qualifier.
If we are going to say the 2021 U.S. Open women’s tournament was — adjusted for circumstances — the greatest tournament ever played by a tennis player in the Open Era (which I in fact believe), that means Raducanu WON’T continue to blitz the WTA Tour. That moment will, at least for a year or two, remain remarkable for how unlikely it was.
Ultimately, I have no idea how well Raducanu will play in 2022. This loss doesn’t tell me more about how she will fare next year. It’s one match.
The WTA Tour, immersed in quality and loaded with depth, is a place where volatility and parity reign supreme. One match isn’t going to tell me, or you, whether Emma Raducanu will break from the pack and become a top-five-level player throughout 2022.
Let’s not pretend this one match contains far-reaching meanings.
Let’s just wait and see what happens for Emma in Melbourne, oui? I think oui can all agree on that point.