Rampant Emma Raducanu races past Victoria Azarenka in Cincinnati

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The Guardian

As Emma Raducanu wrapped up her media obligations close to 10pm here on Tuesday night, still digesting all that she had experienced that evening, she faced another one of the learning experiences that have characterised her past year.

After the euphoria and adrenaline of snuffing out Serena Williams before her thunderous home crowd, Raducanu was charged with forgetting it all and quickly moving on, another former No 1 waiting for a shot at her the next day. She handled the challenge with supreme, startling ease, following up her dismantling of Williams with an even more destructive performance.

In just 62 minutes Raducanu eviscerated Victoria Azarenka 6-0, 6-2 to reach the third round on her Cincinnati debut. At the most opportune time, with her US Open title defence one tournament away, Raducanu’s confidence continues to grow.

One of the most difficult tasks in professional tennis is to remain composed after a big, impactful win and then back it up with tennis of the same quality in the following rounds. It became immediately clear that there would be no hangover as Raducanu flitted out of the blocks, returning solidly and breaking Azarenka’s serve in the opening game. The pressure she imposed on her opponent was not dissimilar to how Azarenka conducts herself when in form, smothering her rivals by hugging the baseline and producing clean, early, and precise ball striking.

As the games continued to fall in her favour, the ease with which Raducanu picked apart Azarenka was startling. After inflicting a bagel on Williams on Tuesday, in her very next set she did the same on another champion, taking the first set 6-0.

By contrast to Raducanu’s late start, brought on by the rescheduling of her first‑round match with Williams and the fact that both she and Azarenka were scheduled to play doubles in the evening, Azarenka had a day off from singles and she had every reason to be fresh and prepared for the challenge ahead.

She was not. As Raducanu’s level soared, Azarenka’s performance was appalling. Azarenka sprayed unforced errors and moved sluggishly, and finished the first set with just four winners to 16 errors. After her win against Williams, Raducanu said she intended to be “stingy” with her game, not allowing opponents any free points, and she lived it to the fullest as she established a 6-0, 4-0 lead, pushing towards handing Azarenka her first double bagel.

At 33 years old and with her stagnant ranking of 22, Azarenka is even further removed from her days as a top player than Williams, her run to the 2020 US Open final an anomaly in the six years since she was a top‑10 player. Raducanu exposed those frailties and by the end Azarenka was fighting for her reputation, for mere games. All she could do was hold serve twice before Raducanu closed off another win without issue.

‘Amazing to share the court with her’: Raducanu on facing Williams – video

On Tuesday night, as Raducanu previewed her match with Azarenka, she thought back to the days when she was watching the two-time grand slam champion on television. “When she was playing in the US Open and made the final in like I think 2020 during the bubble,” she said. “I was studying for my exams. I hadn’t played tennis in like two, three months and I was kind of just dreaming that one day I’m going to play on Ashe, and one day I’m going to be at that level and playing these great players myself. Everything felt so far away.”

As she battles these same players as equals, it stands as a reminder of how far Raducanu has come.

This week additionally marks her second tournament accompanied by coach Dmitry Tursunov, who began their trial period at the Citi Open and it is evidently going well. In their two events together, she has won consecutive matches and made clear progress. More broadly, her performances in Cincinnati are a reminder that even when players are struggling to win matches and suffering from a crisis of confidence, momentum can build quickly.

There are tougher challenges ahead against more relevant players in their physical prime, competing at the top level of the sport, and with her two wins, another barometer awaits. Raducanu will next face the American Jessica Pegula, the much improved seventh seed, in the fourth round. Pegula will be just the second top 10 opponent of Raducanu’s career as well as the second time she has faced a higher ranked opponent since the US Open.

August 18, 2022 at 02:44AM Tumaini Carayol in Cincinnati

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