Emma Raducanu is still only 21, but it’s easy to understand why she feels like an old soul.
“I feel reborn in a way,” she told reporters at the ASB Classic in Auckland, New Zealand, before her first match in more than eight months. “I feel ready, I feel happy, I feel excited.
“Overall, I’m feeling very positive — and lighter. I think for two years after the US Open, I felt maybe a bit more weight on my shoulders. But now I feel completely fresh.”
That sometimes unbearable burden was the 2021 US Open. Even in retrospect, it’s difficult to fully comprehend what Raducanu achieved that fortnight.
Just 18, she had played only six matches at the Hologic WTA Tour level and was ranked No.150 when she entered the qualifying draw. Raducanu, Toronto-born and representing Great Britain, won all 10 of the matches at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center — all in straight sets. Nimble and ruthlessly aggressive, she was the first qualifier to win a Grand Slam singles title in the Open Era.
Raducanu was an immediate sensation, an exceedingly marketable young star. She signed high-end endorsement contracts worth millions and her Instagram followers soared past two million.
Since winning the US Open title, though, her record is a middling 24-27 and she hasn’t come close to winning another tournament. Staying healthy enough to endure the necessary training blocks and heavy tournament schedule has been the challenge. After undergoing three surgeries and sitting on the sidelines for eight months, she comes into the new season ranked No.298. Her last on-court appearance was a 6-2, 6-1 loss to Jelena Ostapenko in Stuttgart last April.
It was a poignant juxtaposition. Ostapenko was the first in a recent series of young first-time major winners who understood the frustrating chase to recapture the level of their breathtaking breakthrough. The Latvian won the 2017 French Open at the age of 20. Bianca Andreescu was 19 when she won the 2019 US Open and Sofia Kenin took the 2020 Australian Open at the age of 21.
There were times, Raducanu has admitted, that she sometimes wished she hadn’t won that major title.
In an exclusive interview with WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen, Raducanu discussed her rehabilitation after three surgeries — on her right ankle and both wrists.
“I had casts, braces on my hand and foot,” Raducanu said. “It was really difficult to do anything, really. As soon as I was able to start doing fitness and tennis again it was really nice — just sweating. Having the time away, it only made me appreciate so much more playing tennis and moving your body.”
Raducanu attacked rehabilitation the same way she would an opponent on the court — full throttle.
“I never had the fear of holding back,” she said. “I would go full, and then I had a few hiccups on my recovery road. I would go for it. Physically I feel good. I did a lot of work in the gym. I really trust my body right now.”
In Auckland, Raducanu should get a sense of where she is almost immediately. She received a wild card into the 32-player draw and will face a qualifier in the first round. Her second-round opponent would be the winner of the blockbuster first-round match between No.2-seeded Elina Svitolina and former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, two mothers who returned to the Tour last year. The top seed is World No.3 Coco Gauff.
“I’m looking forward to playing tournaments and just getting that feel again,” Raducanu said. “I’m also looking forward to putting together good training weeks. I think that’s something I’ve really noticed in the past few months — how much your game can actually improve by training the right [way].
“Being healthy and being consistent is really important. Previously, I was training, but I always had these niggles. By doing the work physically on the court you can make those things less frequent. You’re better suited for more consistent results.”
As she finalizes her preparation for the first Grand Slam of the season, Raducanu currently finds herself on the outside looking in. Barring a main-draw wild card or additional withdrawals, Raducanu will have to battle her way through qualifying for a chance to play the Australian Open.
Then again, the last time she toiled away in Grand Slam qualifying, Raducanu went on to win the whole thing.
How would she measure a successful Down Under campaign?
“Playing how I want to play,” she said emphatically, meaning aggressive. “My identity and sticking to that. That’s when I play my best tennis, that’s when I’m the best competitor. That’s how I enjoy playing as well. It’s just more fun.
“In the last few years, that was hiding a little bit. It came out in glimpses, like  Cincinnati, for example. That’s my goal.”