NEW YORK — At the beginning of Wimbledon, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu was so unknown that showing even a hint of potential early in the tournament made her an overnight national sensation in Great Britain.
By the end of her run to the round of 16, when she had to retire from the match with breathing difficulties and dizziness brought on by performance anxiety, she became fodder for TV personalities like Piers Morgan, who cruelly characterized her withdrawal as “not brave, just a shame.”
That’s an awful lot to take in for someone so young who had never before been in that kind of spotlight. Tennis, sadly, has seen more than its share of young talents who got a taste of unexpected stardom and didn’t respond well to everything it entails.
But now, a couple months later, nobody in tennis is asking whether Raducanu can bounce back from that experience. Instead, the question of the day is this: Could she actually win the U.S. Open?
“I think everyone is on their own trajectory,” Raducanu said after dispatching veteran Shelby Rogers 6-2, 6-1 on Monday to make the quarterfinals against Olympic gold medalist Belinda Bencic. “Personally, I am surprised that I’m here.”
For the majority of players on the WTA Tour, making the final 16 at Wimbledon followed by the U.S. Open quarterfinals would be the foundation of a highly successful season. For Raducanu, though, it feels like an amuse-bouche for what’s to come, largely because of the maturity she has shown at every turn and the clear growth in her game even in a short span of time this summer.
Though Raducanu turned pro in 2018 and was progressing through the ITF ranks — a level below the WTA — she was also going to high school in London. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and instead of trying to chase ranking points and tournament wildcards all over the world, she stayed home and trained with an eye toward this summer when she would receive a wildcard into Wimbledon.
But even in the small sample size we’ve seen, it’s clear that her run was no fluke.
After taking a short break to assess how her life had changed, she packed her bags for the longest trip of her life. It started with a loss to Zhang Shuai at the Silicon Valley Classic, but the wins started to come quickly after that. Raducanu won four matches at an ITF event in Pennsylvania, made the finals of a Challenger-level event in Chicago and then easily beat her three opponents at U.S. Open qualifying to get into the main draw.
Since then, she hasn’t come close to losing a set, including a 6-2, 6-4 win over Shuai, who beat her just a few weeks earlier.
But perhaps most impressive was the way she handled the match with Rogers, which was her first appearance on Arthur Ashe Stadium. After losing a nervy first two games and facing a break point in the third, Raducanu flipped the match around entirely, winning 11 games in a row and using her easy power to rush Rogers into a bevy of errors.
For a player who found that kind of moment so overwhelming at Wimbledon that she couldn’t continue playing, it was a clear sign that she knows how to process the adrenaline rush — and sometimes the setbacks — that come with being in these high-stakes moments for the first time.
“I was really proud of myself, how I managed to settle and regroup and find a level that at the end took me to the win,” she said. “I’m feeling very confident and happy with how I’m performing out here in the States. I feel like I’m building with each match. I’m really excited to see what I can do on Wednesday.”
Bencic, a former U.S. Open semifinalist whose form from Tokyo has clearly carried over here, will be a far bigger challenge for Raducanu than anyone she’s faced during this run. But Raducanu, who will at least break into the top 75 of the rankings based on this performance, does not carry herself like she feels much pressure here and is just trying to soak in all these experiences for the first time.
“My time has gone so quickly here in the States,” she said. “Having gone to some really cool places out here — San Francisco, Chicago, New York — everywhere is just really cool. The time’s flown by.”
As part of her U.S. tour, Raducanu has taken time in each city to visit their landmark structures and often posts about them on Instagram. In New York, though, she said she’s saving all the tourist spots for the end.
If she can pull another surprise Wednesday, it may take her awhile to get around to it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken