By Martyn Herman
LONDON -London’s Royal Albert Hall provided a fitting stage on Sunday for teenage tennis sensation Emma Raducanu’s first appearance on a British court since her astonishing U.S. Open triumph.
Playing 79 days after an extraordinary run in New York culminated in victory over Canada’s Leylah Fernandez and being crowned Britain’s new tennis queen, the 19-year-old enjoyed a belated homecoming at the Victorian concert hall.
The stakes were far lower for her exhibition match against Romanian Elena-Gabriela Ruse than when, as a qualifier ranked 150th in the world, she became Britain’s first female Grand Slam champion for 44 years in September.
But, with respect to the former big names appearing at this week’s Champions Tennis event, the crowd had only come to see Raducanu, who has risen from obscurity to become one of the world’s most marketable athletes.
It was her first match on home soil since July when her dream Wimbledon debut ended in a fourth round retirement against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic because of breathing difficulties.
There was no such drama this time in a light-hearted hit-around with her friend and practice partner Ruse, ranked 85th in the world. The pair delighted spectators in the 150-year-old venue with some engaging rallies and jokes, with one young fan yelling “Emma will you marry me”.
Later Ruse handed her racket to a ballboy who rallied with Raducanu and even won a point with some nifty network.
Ruse avoided gatecrashing Raducanu’s party and the home favourite produced some sparkling winners to triumph 6-3 7-6.
The serious business starts again now for Raducanu and new coach Torben Beltz as she prepares for the looming Australian where she will have a lot to live up to.
“It was amazing to play at home in front of everyone here,” Raducanu said. “I started my pre-season this week on Tuesday. I’ve done a lot of fitness but not so much tennis, so I was nervous coming out to play in front of everyone.”
A year she describes as “surreal” is tipped to end with her winning the prestigious BBC Sports Personality award, although the former go-karter will vote for F1 hero Lewis Hamilton.
And of her prospects for next year, Raducanu said she is still very much learning her craft.
“My expectations of myself are to keep improving, I want to look back at the end of the year and see that I made gains in different areas,” she said.
“I know it will take a lot of patience to get to where I want to be and smooth out that consistency. It’s all about building robustness physically. It will be my first calendar year on the tour, it will be a cool experience to play a full schedule. I’m still quite young. We will learn and get better.”