As Emma Raducanu fought hard to stay alive in the second set of her primetime bout with Iga Swiatek on Tuesday night, she threw all that she had at the undisputed world No 1. Down a break point, Raducanu fired down a heavy combination of forehands that kissed multiple lines. Against almost anyone else, she would have generated an easy short ball to put away.
But not Swiatek. After flitting from side to side at full sprint, she eventually responded with a sliding defensive backhand so deep that it instantly flipped the rally and forced an error. As Swiatek snatched the break and marched to victory, it was a further example of just how hard it is to face her. Not only does she overwhelm the rest of the world with her vicious, heavy groundstrokes off both wings, but she will outrun you, too.
On Tuesday night at Indian Wells, Britain’s two brightest young players, Raducanu and Jack Draper, fought against the top-ranked players at Indian Wells, Swiatek and Carlos Alcaraz. They left with a greater understanding of the progress they must make.
After a frenetic opening five games, Swiatek elevated her level and, like the rest of the field, Raducanu could not keep up as she was eventually smothered 6-3, 6-1.
The outlook is undeniably positive for the British No 1, now the world No 77, who enjoyed by far the best week of her career since winning the US Open in 2021. After searching for her on-court identity last year, she played with freedom and clarity throughout her matches as she fought her way inside the baseline. The simple hope is that the work she has done at Indian Wells will be a great base for her to build on and progress, and that her body will allow her to do so. The Miami Open begins next week.
“I think especially because of where I was before this tournament, didn’t think I would even play, to be honest,” Raducanu said. “But to have played and then won three rounds and beaten two amazing opponents, I’m very proud of myself.
“Now it’s just about consistent work to physically get to where I want to be. I saw a taste of the level where No 1 is at physically and how she is at the corners, repetitive, relentless. I just couldn’t take that.”
Earlier in the night, Alcaraz was repetitive and relentless from the beginning. While he had barely survived against Draper when they played last year in Basel, winning 7-5 in the third set, here he did not give his opponent a moment to breathe. He attacked early and fast, forehand winners exploding from his racket as he constantly closed down the net.
Any hope that Draper had of responding was quickly ended with the familiar sight of his body betraying him early in the match. By the end of the first set, he could no longer serve at full pace or freely hit groundstrokes. It was a frustrating end to a brilliant week in Indian Wells, where he has picked off Dan Evans and Andy Murray, the latter the closest thing he has to an idol, and demonstrated how well his movement and variety so nicely complement his enormous lefty serve.
Draper has taken strides to address his physical frailties and his first major decision as a senior was to hire Dejan Vojnovic, a former Olympic sprinter, at the end of last year as his fitness coach. It is evidently a work in progress and, far more important than a specific ranking or result, the goal for his first full season on the tour has to be to build a body that can handle the rigours of professional tennis week in, week out.
While Raducanu and Draper were halted by the best, Cameron Norrie continued to make the exceptional look routine by dismantling the sixth seed Andrey Rublev 6-2, 6-4 to reach the quarter-finals for the third year in a row. With his victory, Norrie’s win-loss record so far this season is now 21-3. Only Daniil Medvedev has won more matches this year.
Norrie – the 2021 champion – took an unusual path from the Australian Open to the tournament for a British player. He opted to compete in the “golden swing”, the string of February clay-court events in South America. Norrie was the first British singles player ever to enter the Rio Open and he left the tournament as the victor.
Against Rublev, Norrie – the No 10 seed – demonstrated his continued growth. A few years ago, he would have settled for merely trying to grind the Russian down, but today Norrie pairs his counterpunching with actual punch. As much as he infuriated his opponent with his defence, he also imposed himself with his improved forehand and he consistently mixed in variety. He will face Frances Tiafoe for a spot in the semi-finals. As long as he is in the tournament, he remains a contender.