MELBOURNE, Australia — Emma Raducanu‘s face lit up with excitement during her first-round press conference at the Australian Open when she learned her next opponent at Melbourne Park would be fellow WTA rising star Coco Gauff.
The pair will meet Wednesday evening on Rod Laver Arena, and while it may only be for a place in the last 32 of the tournament, it’s a blockbuster matchup worthy of being played deep in the second week of any major.
The reason for such an early encounter? The two have had vastly different fortunes over the past 18 months.
Raducanu’s form has been trending in the wrong direction ever since she triumphed at the 2021 US Open as a teenager. In 2022, she managed just three Grand Slam wins, split with coach Torben Beltz and battled several minor injuries. As a result, her world ranking, which peaked at No. 10 after her run in New York, plummeted to 77.
Meanwhile, Gauff has vaulted from 22nd to fourth in the rankings over the same period, courtesy of a maiden Slam final appearance at the French Open in June, as well as a quarterfinal berth at the US Open. Gauff is seeded seventh for this fortnight in Melbourne and amongst the favorites to win the title.
“I think we’re both good, young players,” Raducanu said on Day 1 of the tournament. “We’re both coming through as part of the next generation of tennis.”
Gauff and Raducanu have never met in professional competition, so when the two bright stars of the women’s circuit walk out to center court at a Grand Slam, you better get that popcorn ready.
Why Coco Gauff will win
Gauff put the women’s draw on notice with a dominant first round win over Katerina Siniakova, dismantling the Czech 6-1, 6-4 inside 75 minutes.
As expected, her raw power and aggression were real features. Gauff struck the second-fastest serve of the tournament thus far, at 193km/h (120mph), and made a habit of winning points when her first serve landed in play (77%). She also displayed tremendous poise and control from the backhand wing, where she found eight winners.
Gauff will look to these areas again when she faces Raducanu, who might struggle early in the contest to adjust to what will be a significant rise in power from her first-round opponent.
“She’s a great athlete with some real weapons,” Raducanu said of Gauff. “She’s playing really good tennis and looking really solid.”
The doubles pedigree of Gauff also gives her a significant edge. She rarely turns down an opportunity to move inside the baseline and is as effective as any player on Tour once she has approached the net. In her opener, Gauff made a move to the net 19 times, winning 15 of those points.
Why Emma Raducanu will win
There was real doubt Raducanu would even feature in the main draw at Melbourne Park after she took a nasty tumble and twisted her ankle at the ASB Classic in Auckland earlier this month.
But after a nervy start, she, like Gauff, impressed in her first outing at the Australian Open with a comfortable 6-3, 6-2 win over Germany’s Tamara Korpatsch.
Gauff is clearly the form player right now, but Raducanu knows she can still step up her game and play at a significantly higher level. She struck 34 unforced errors against Korpatsch, yet was always in firm control of the match.
Raducanu will look to extend rallies against Gauff and force the 18-year-old into making errors. It’s an area where Gauff showed weakness in her opener, losing 14 of the 19 points in which rallies lasted at least nine shots.
And while being unseeded at a major is far from ideal, evidenced by a second-round date with Gauff, perhaps a benefit is the release of pressure. Raducanu has played her best tennis when she hasn’t been expected to, and entering this match as a firm outsider could benefit her.
What will happen?
The pair’s rankings are where they are for a reason. Gauff’s purple patch continued into 2023 by winning the title in Auckland without dropping a set, before looking ominous in her first round in Melbourne. She should be winning this in straight sets, too.