As the intense first set between Alizé Cornet and Emma Raducanu arrived at its decisive moment, with Cornet serving at 5-3, the Briton did everything in her power to hold off her veteran opponent. She stepped inside the baseline, attacking hard and early off both wings. But, like so many times on Tuesday night, Cornet had a response. She absorbed every blow, flitting from side to side, and then she threaded a down-the-line forehand winner on the 27th stroke.
A year ago, Raducanu pulled off one of the most surprising runs in tennis history, but her 2022 season has been a series of reminders about just how difficult this sport is. In arduous, windy conditions, Raducanu received her most brutal reality check yet as her US Open title defence ended in the first round with a 6-3, 6-3 loss.
“Obviously really disappointing, really sad to leave here,” said Raducanu, her cap pulled down over her face, in her press conference. “It’s probably my favourite tournament. But also, in a way happy because it’s a clean slate. I’m going to drop down the rankings. Climb my way back up. In a way, the target will be off my back slightly. I just have another chance to claw my way back up there.”
From the moment the draw was announced, it was clear that Raducanu had been handed one of the toughest unseeded opponents. Cornet, the world No 40, is enjoying the best grand slam year of her career. She finally reached her first slam quarter-final at the Australian Open and has beaten Iga Swiatek, Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko in majors alone. Her immediate response to her draw on Twitter was ominous. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” she wrote.
Raducanu emerged on Louis Armstrong Stadium to an intense ovation worthy of her status as defending champion, and throughout the match the crowd tried hard to animate her. Sitting in the front rows once again was Virginia Wade, the winner in 1968.
After a difficult year, as she adjusted to her new celebrity and the scrutiny that comes with it, Raducanu arrived in New York feeling like she was striking the ball as freely as she has over the past year after performing well at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati.
She tried hard to maintain that attacking momentum, but in the gusty wind, Cornet’s experience came to the fore. She pulled Raducanu into lengthy exchanges, showing her delicate hands with sweet drop shots and composure at the net. Most importantly, she absorbed Raducanu’s pace and counterpunched brilliantly. The pressure she imposed on Raducanu eventually provoked a double fault from Raducanu on break point at 4-3.
“The way that the conditions were, it was quite difficult because the ball was moving around for me to really swing,” said Raducanu. “Alizé’s defence was pretty good. I thought she was just scrapping everything back. There were like junk balls in the middle of the court. With the wind blowing around, it was really difficult. She just kept getting it back.”
After the first set, Raducanu took a medical timeout for blisters on her hand. She pieced together her cleanest stretch of ball-striking early on, nailing a winning backhand down the line to break for 3-1. But Cornet’s resourcefulness separated her when it mattered. She retrieved the break with a supreme drop shot, and her hand skills and improvisational genius helped her roll through five games in a row as she toppled yet another prominent player.
At any other venue in the world, this loss would not have cut so deep. Cornet is 34th in the WTA race, 27 places above Raducanu, and she has played a central role in many of the biggest grand slam moments this year. She is a better tennis player than Raducanu at this moment. But none of that makes a first-round loss in a US Open title defence any less severe.
In recent months, as the US Open drew closer, Raducanu acknowledged the possibility that she could lose the 2,040 points she gained last year. This is now a reality. She will fall to 79th in the WTA rankings at best, she will be unseeded in lower events and, unless she opts for wildcards, she will have to enter the qualifying rounds of the bigger tournaments. She will now have to build her ranking and status the conventional way.
“It is a clean slate,” she said. “I can just start again. I don’t know what my ranking will be. Probably pretty low down. With perspective, actually as a 19-year-old, I’ve had not a bad year. To be top hundred, if you told me that a year ago, I’d take it.”
In the end, this was Cornet’s moment. By taking to the court on Tuesday night, the 32-year-old broke the women’s record for consecutive grand slam appearances with 63 – she hasn’t missed a major since 2007, when Raducanu was four. Last week, she achieved her 500th career win. She is streetwise and battle-hardened in a way that Raducanu cannot yet contend with.
Having started the year unsure of whether she would still be competing by the end, she has played some of the best tennis of her career. No high profile seed should ever want to see her standing in their way. “I was ready for tonight,” she said. “This year I’m kind of the upset girl. I pull out an upset on every slam. I was like, ‘OK, I did it on the three previous grand slams, so why not this one?’”
Two-time champion Naomi Osaka was defeated in the first round by Danielle Collins, the 19th seed, who won 7-6(7-5), 6-3 in an intense battle that ended at 12:39am on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Unseeded in New York after limited competition last year and an underwhelming summer, Osaka was handed a difficult draw against Collins, the Australian Open runner up earlier this year. Osaka’s defeat means that her four-year streak of winning at least one grand slam tournament has come to an end. Collins, meanwhile, is competing in her first tournament after taking six weeks off due to a neck injury.