By Giri Nathan
Tennis can be so humbling. Yes, it can make your lungs hurt, but the ego bruise is worse. It’s not just the way it leaves you gasping but also the way it can leave you wistfully remembering a time when you were way better at it. What happened to my timing? What about my kick serve? Didn’t this used to be way easier? I am humbled every time I pick up a racquet to hack away for the first time in a few weeks. And top pros, even, can be humbled every time the tour moves over to a surface they don’t love. I’ve always enjoyed watching proven hard-court champs try to find their footing on clay. There’s drama in watching confidence go from 100 to 0 and creep up again, and the tenor of that drama varies wildly, depending on whether the subject is clay-despising (hello, Daniil Medvedev) or merely clay-befuddled (hello, Naomi Osaka).
Emma Raducanu is different from those cases, because we haven’t seen bad clay-court swings from her in the past—we haven’t seen any clay-court seasons whatsoever. She has been figuring out more than just clay; she’s been figuring out life on tour, full stop, after hurling herself into superstardom with her U.S. Open win. The 19-year-old is in the strange position of playing many WTA events, for the first time, as the No. 11 player in the world. Coming into April she had yet to play a single tour-level match on clay. As she explained ahead of the Billie Jean King Cup, her history on the surface amounts to a few summers and nine junior tournaments, the last of which was played four years ago. “I have no toenails,” she reported, having horrified her teammates with feet ravaged by slipping and sliding. If high expectations haunted her last few months on tour—she’s gone 4–8 playing on hard courts since her Open title—it has been liberating to move to a surface she hadn’t set foot on in years, with “zero expectations,” as she has said. Or, as she put it after winning her first-round match in Madrid: “Yeah, I mean, I’m just vibing out here, to be honest.”
Rare and enviable is the person who can “just vibe out” and conquer more than just a bag of chips. Raducanu won two straight matches in Stuttgart—the first time she’d accomplished that in 2022—and then did it again this week in Madrid. Asked after her first win in Stuttgart what she needed to get acclimated to, she said it was “the duration of the points—that’s something that I need to just work on as I spend more time on clay, and it will improve my craftiness and variety of shots.” A nascent drop shot has emerged. In truth, clay should be a natural fit for Raducanu, whose movement is stellar. One might construct a similar argument for Medvedev, but one would be neglecting a crucial detail, which is that Medvedev thinks playing tennis on clay is “play[ing] in the dirt like a dog.” Raducanu, who reminisced about sliding around as a 10-year-old on “some local random clay court that was artificial,” harbors no such hatred. So we can expect her to peacefully regrow her toenails and knock the clay out of her shoes.
At times, the newcomer’s place in the clay hierarchy was strictly reinforced: Marketa Vondrousova, former Roland-Garros finalist, handed Raducanu a double breadstick at the BJK Cup; Iga Swiatek, the WTA’s new alpha, ended her Stuttgart run 6–4, 6–4. It’s also likely that those long yards run on clay caught up to her on Tuesday during her third-round match against Anhelina Kalinina, in which she took two medical timeouts, and after which she described back pain that gave her just a “5 percent chance” to win. But clay has been good to her on the whole. For a player who’s seen the apex of the sport but hasn’t found much consistency, and has cycled through three coaches in nine months, it must have been a comfort to find some rhythm on some unfamiliar dirt.
Above: Emma Raducanu celebrates her win over Marta Kostyuk in Madrid this week. (Getty)