Emma Raducanu evokes spirit of England at Euro 2024 after ‘winning ugly’ on Wimbledon return

It’s been two years since Emma Raducanu – 2021’s breakthrough British sporting star – strode out onto the Wimbledon stage with the weight of an expectant crowd on her shoulders. Back then, she was impacted by a side strain and was outplayed in the second round. Last year, she spent her SW19 fortnight away from the courts, entertaining guests in the hospitality areas in a role she insisted pre-tournament “really stung”. Yet after 24 months of setbacks and surgeries, the 21-year-old was back on the pristine grass of the All England Club.

Drawn to face 22nd seed Ekaterina Alexandrova, her second-match Centre Court billing promised to be a genuine litmus test of where her game is right now. Yet a late withdrawal from the Russian due to illness handed the wild card a lucky loser in the form of Mexico’s Renata Zarazua. On paper, it seemed a gift from the tennis gods as she eyed a smooth progression to round two.

But the reality was quite the opposite: this was no cakewalk. Under the gloomy skies of southwest London, Raducanu misfired and miscued. One minute she found her rhythm, the next she lost it. The ebbs and flows were continuous; however, ultimately, Raducanu staggered through an awkward test of nerve, perseverance and 30 unforced errors in straight sets, 7-6(0), 6-3.

Afterwards, Raducanu, who practised while wearing an England shirt on Sunday, admitted her performance paid homage to Gareth Southgate’s team after their last-gasp Euro 2024 win against Slovakia. David Beckham, sitting next to his mother in the Royal Box, could not help but chuckle.

“It was an incredibly difficult match,” she said. “I don’t think I’ve ever played a defender who keeps getting the ball back on the line. it took a lot of strength to get over the line.

“I’m incredibly happy to be back here. Today I was nervous, everyone could see that in my tennis. At the end of the day, you just have to do what it takes to get over the line. Honestly watching the football last night, it was like winning ugly! It all counts!”

If she wants to reflect on one glimpse of stardust, it was that first-set tiebreak. A tiebreak she won 7-0, striking the ball deep and flat in repetition. It was that straightforward style of power and timing that saw her storm through the field and cause one of the biggest upsets in sporting history with her title as a qualifier at the US Open three years ago. And it is that uncomplicated gameplan that will serve her best if she wants to muster a repeat run here this fortnight.

The statement of intent was clear from the get-go, with Raducanu, on return, dismantling the Mexican’s first serve on point one, with a forehand winner dead plum down the line. Though Zarazua held, the course of the contest was immediately cemented: Zarazua, more accustomed to the clay of the Americas than the grass of Centre Court, was plucky and awkward in defence while Raducanu was keen to attack, pummelling her groundstrokes off both wings.

But on a skiddy, slow grass surface on a day of overcast conditions, Raducanu found it difficult to break down her opponent and, for the vast majority of this near two-hour encounter, it was patchy from Bromley’s finest. In truth, really patchy.

Emma Raducanu won on her return to Wimbledon in straight sets on Monday (Getty)
Emma Raducanu won on her return to Wimbledon in straight sets on Monday (Getty)
David Beckham was in attendance with his mum Sandra (PA Wire)
David Beckham was in attendance with his mum Sandra (PA Wire)

Zarazua, on debut at Wimbledon and gratefully accepting the occasion of her career after losing in qualifying last week, is ranked 37 places higher after Raducanu’s injury-hit 2023 and was certainly no pushover. Utilising a variety of slices and effective drop-shot, she retrieved a break of serve halfway through the first set as Raducanu’s forehand – four errors in one game, completely out of the blue – went awol.

Serving to stay in the set, Raducanu briefly altered to a form of moon-balling – whipping the ball high in the air, spinning above her 5ft 3in opponent – to crawl to 5-5 but the Mexican’s intelligent luring of Raducanu forward was supremely effective. In the first set, the Brit won less than 30 per cent of her points at the net.

But letting out a defiant roar in dragging herself to a first-set tie-break, Raducanu found her range when she needed it most. The tiebreak, in contrast to the hour’s play that preceded it, was one-way traffic. Raducanu won every point and after 65 minutes largely perplexing minutes, Raducanu was one set up despite 18 unforced errors. That, namely the tenacity of winning when below par, is to her credit.

Raducanu was tested but came through despite not playing at her best (Getty)
Raducanu was tested but came through despite not playing at her best (Getty)

Would her excellent tie-break trigger a change in flow? Not totally.

It was still a struggle for Raducanu, a peculiar combination of booming winners and baffling errors. She broke in game six, largely down to mistakes from a tiring Zarazua, and eventually her superior natural power took her stuttering over the finish line.

By the end, it was undoubtedly pure relief. She brought up her second match point with a brilliant chase-down and angled forehand cross-court which brought the biggest roar of the match from the crowd. One final backhand slice long from her opponent ended it – and ended a solid opening-round test.

Next up? A step up. Raducanu will play world No 1 doubles player Elise Mertens, an excellent player at the net who has also reached the fourth round in the singles at Wimbledon previously. On Wednesday, it will need a step up in quality from the Brit, desperate to record successive wins at a grand slam for the first time since that glorious New York summer.

Yet evoking the spirit of Jude Bellingham and Co, right now it’s not about the performance: it’s about who wins the final point.