When the Western & Southern draw in Cincinnati came out, all eyes were on the first-round match between Emma Raducanu and Serena Williams.

Including, of course, Raducanu’s.

“I got a text saying, ‘You’re playing Serena, exclamation mark,’” she said. “I just landed from Toronto. To be honest, my initial reaction was, ‘Wow, that is writ, and that is a gift. I can’t believe it. You have to cherish the moment, and you’re going to have this memory for the rest of your career.’”

Raducanu met that moment with unnatural grace and poise. She defeated Williams 6-4, 6-0 in only 65 minutes. Of the 90 points played, Raducanu had one unforced error.

Watch this: Emma Raducanu honors Serena Williams after Cincinnati win

2022 Cincinnati

She was especially happy that she hadn’t been intimidated by the circumstances.

“That was what I was focusing the most on, just being really, really present and thinking of my game, thinking of what I needed to do,” she said. “But I’m not trying to get too high or too low right now. I’m just trying to stay on one path and trajectory, because I kind of feel like I have been on both ends of that.”

Broadcaster Mary Carillo, who will be working for the World Feed in New York, has been impressed with the small sample she’s seen.

Photo by WTA/Jimmie48

“She’s the real deal,” Carillo said. “She’s got beautiful strokes, a great concept of the game. I haven’t seen her in person since last year’s US Open. So I don’t know if her game has fallen off, or if her fame has made it tougher to play her game.”

Perhaps a bit of both.

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Out of nowhere

A year ago, Raducanu was just another aspiring 18-year-old looking to make an impression in the world of professional tennis.

She arrived at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center with all of six WTA-level matches on her resume (three victories) and a ranking of No.150. And then she did something that no one ever had. In only her second major tournament, she won three qualifying matches and then seven straight in the main draw, including the US Open final against fellow teenager Leylah Fernandez.

Photo by Darren Carroll/USTA

Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era -- and she didn’t drop a single set.

With it came the perfect marketing storm. Born in Canada to a mother from China and a Romanian father, Raducanu is a British citizen. Her surprising success drew lucrative endorsement offers from some of the finest luxury brands. Today those contracts are worth more than $14 million, and she’s amassed 2.4 followers on Instagram.

Raducanu was named the WTA Newcomer of the Year and became the first female tennis player since Virginia Wade in 1977 to win BBC Sports Personality of the Year, as well as awards from ESPN, Laureus and the London Times. Earlier this year, Raducanu was appointed Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire -- not quite on par with Sir Winston Churchill or Stephen Hawking, but a peer of Adele, Ed Sheeran and Harry Kane.

The tennis thing?

Heading into Cincinnati last week, Raducanu had lost 18 of 31 matches since winning last year’s US Open. And then -- it must be those American hard courts -- she defeated Grand Slam champions Williams and Victoria Azarenka in a span of 24 hours. Raducanu dropped only six games total -- and at one point, won 17 straight games against the two.

“I knew I had to be on my game, but I kind of also backed myself and my own game,” Raducanu said afterward. “I think that starting the point is obviously really important against both of them, because Vika has got incredible returns and Serena is probably the best serve in the game. I just had to focus on what I could control, and in the points you can’t think about who is on the other end of the court. You’ve just got to play the ball.”

Earlier this month, Raducanu, offered some perspective.

“To have success at a young age, obviously you have to be really grateful because I’m doing what I love, but also I’ve reached success way earlier than I ever really would have thought I did,” Raducanu said in Toronto. “So I’m pretty proud of myself in that way. 

“But it has been a tough year. I’ve definitely gone through and experienced a lot of challenges. To be fair, I’ve learned a lot from all of it.”

Sofia Kenin, too, encountered a steep learning curve. She won her first major title, the 2020 Australian Open, at the age of 21. She followed it up with a French Open final later that year.

“I felt more pressure from the outside,” Kenin said. “I tried to do my best but obviously some nerves got the better of me. I put more pressure on myself because I felt like I was expected to do it each time. That’s unrealistic unless you’re like Novak [Djokovic] or like Rafa [Nadal]. Serena [Williams], too.”

Raducanu tested positive for COVID-19 during the pre-season. Still, she expected great things from herself in 2022 -- and so did the fans. Not surprisingly, she’s been a hot topic on social media platforms.

“Whatever you do, you’re going to get criticism but it doesn’t really matter,” she said in Toronto. “People are going to find a way to say something, regardless. I think that’s something that I’ve just realized. I don’t spend a lot of time looking at it … you see a bad one, you might see one that’s slightly unfavorable, and that would be the one that sticks in your head.”

In Cincinnati, Raducanu finds her freedom again

Raducanu won two matches at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., but lost a first-round match in Toronto to Camila Giorgi. In Cincinnati, she caught fire and won those matches against Williams and Azarenka before falling in straight sets to Top 10 player Jessica Pegula.

“I have lost a lot of matches from leading situations and probably just played too tense,” Raducanu said in Cincinnati.  “I think that I just need to swing, and I just said that these two tournaments or this tournament especially I’m just going to swing freely and see what happens.”

That’s just what she’ll do at the US Open when she defends her title.