The Rapid Rise of Emma Raducanu
By: Steven Lu Chen and Aarushi Verma
In September 2021, eighteen-year-old Emma Raducanu took the tennis world by storm by dominating that year’s U.S. Open, winning the entire tournament without dropping a single set and becoming the first British woman in half a century to lift the trophy. Previously ranked as the world’s 150th best women’s tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), her ranking rocketed to 23rd as a result of her win. Seemingly out of nowhere, Raducanu rose from a rising tennis starlet into an international pop culture icon, appearing at the 2021 Met Gala in New York, and inking endorsements not just with sports manufacturers Nike and Wilson, but also luxury brands Tiffany & Co. and Dior.
Despite having achieved what most tennis players, models, and actors can only dream of as a mere teenager, there still seems to be nowhere to go but up for Emma. Yet, before we allow ourselves to get lost in envisioning the limitless heights Raducanu has the potential to reach, let us first look back upon all that she has already done in her short career to date. In this article, we first examine Raducanu’s statistics over her U.S. Open run in the context of past winners of the competition (starting from 2003, which was the first year advanced statistics were kept), as well as compare her career numbers at 18 years old to those of tennis greats Ashleigh Barty, Serena Williams, and Naomi Osaka’s stats at the same age.
First Serve Statistics
Among the most important statistics in tennis are ace rate, first serve percentage, and percentage of first serve points won. Because players can afford to hit their first serve with more ferocity and take more risks with ball placement than their second, right before the first serve is the time when a player has the greatest advantage over their opponent. Consequently, first serve statistics are commonly viewed as very effective indicators of player performance.
A player’s ace rate refers to the percentage of a player’s serves that are aces; that is, legal serves that go untouched by the opponent, resulting in a point. Generally, aces are only seen on a player’s first serve, although exceptions are rare, but not unheard of. A high ace rate indicates that a player’s serves are not just powerful, but also accurate. A visualization of historical U.S. Open winners’ ace rates over the course of the tournament can be found above.
Seeing as Raducanu’s ace rate is about 5.5%, which ranks 10th out of 19 competitors, one may conclude that her serving ability is rather middle-of-the-road, but this single statistic may not tell the entire story. Looking at the same 19 competitors’ first serve in rate and percentage of first serve points won may allow us to gain more insight.
From the visualizations, we can see that Raducanu’s percentage of first serve points won once again ranks 10th out of 19, but her first serve in rate of 72.1% is the highest out of all U.S. Open winners since 2003. First serve in rate refers to the percentage of first serves that land in the field of play, while percentage of first serve points won is the percentage of first serves that result in a point for the server. These statistics serve to tell us more about Raducanu’s style of play than her serving prowess alone. One can likely glean from her elite in rate that she prioritizes an accurate serve, even if it comes at the expense of a large number of aces; this stands in contrast to a player like Serena Williams in 2012, whose tournament run featured an absurdly high ace rate of 18.5%, over 53.4% higher than the next highest winner, and also led all competitors in percentage of first serve points won.
Return Points and Dominance Ratio
Another important tennis statistic is the dominance ratio, which determines a player’s dominance over the course of the entire game, rather than looking at a specific match or set. It is calculated by taking the ratio of a player’s percentage of return points won to their percentage of serve points lost. The uniqueness of the dominance ratio lies in how it takes into account the player’s game while they are not serving and how they match up against their opponent’s serve. Although the dominance ratio might not always be the most accurate predictor of the more “dominant” player in the game, more often than not, the player with the higher dominance ratio is the winner.
Usually, a player’s dominance ratio will fall between 0.7 and 1.5. In the 2021 U.S. Open, Raducanu recorded a dominance ratio of 1.58, the 4th highest ratio of all U.S. Open winners since 2003. Only one player was able to record a higher dominance ratio than Raducanu did in 2021: Serena Williams, over an incredible three-year period in which she won the 2012, 2013, and 2014 U.S. Open’s with ratios of 1.74, 1.97, and 1.7, respectively. This suggests that Raducanu played an extremely dominant game during the 2021 US Open and was able to maximize the number of points she won against her opponents while also minimizing the number of points she lost on her serve.
In addition to the dominance ratio, another statistic that gives insight into a player’s performance is the first serve return points won, which is found by taking the percentage of points a player wins against their opponents first serve. Players with a higher percentage of first serve return points won can be said to have a more offensive style of play.
During the 2021 US Open, Raducanu won 51.6% of the first serve points against her opponents. While this statistic appears high, she only ranks 7th out of the past 19 US Open Winners for highest first serve return points won. The players with the highest percent of first serve return points won were Serena Williams, Justine Herrera, and Kim Clijsters.
Comparison to Other Players
Finally, we will compare Raducanu’s career statistics (as of her 19th birthday, November 13, 2021) to those of two other established players: current world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, and two-time U.S. Open winner and No. 13 Naomi Osaka, prior to the age of 19. This comparison can allow us to get an idea of Raducanu’s ceiling as a developing player, and what we can expect from her in the years to come.
Games Played and Win-Loss Record
Although Osaka had played a great deal more games at 19 than both Barty and Raducanu, she also lost a greater proportion of them than both her contemporaries. Over Osaka’s career prior to her 19th birthday, she won 86 of her 152 matches played, good for a winning percentage of 56.6%. Meanwhile, Barty won 64.3% of her 98 matches, and Raducanu won an even three quarters, or 75%, of 92 matches played. Over this period, Raducanu appeared in seven tournament finals, winning four of them - three ITF tournaments in Tiberias, Antalya, and Pune, and of course, the U.S. Open. Barty played in only six tournament finals by 19, winning four, but none as prestigious as the U.S. Open, and Osaka played in seven as well, but won none. Clearly, Raducanu holds the edge both in her superior tournament performances as well as her win-loss record over Osaka and Barty at this point in their careers.
Despite the larger sample size available in Osaka’s statistics, the comparable sizes of Barty’s and Raducanu’s samples, as well as Barty’s career trajectory thus far, suggest that Raducanu’s fast start to her career very well could be an indicator of things to come.
We once again take a look at ace rate, first serve percentage, percentage of first serve points won, percentage of return points won, and dominance ratio as metrics to compare player performance. It should, however, be noted that advanced statistics were not kept for many of the smaller tournaments that young players compete in early in their careers. Therefore, the statistics that are available may not be fully representative of every match a given player has played.
Again, Raducanu is observed to possess an elite in rate on her first serve, scoring a full twelve percentage points higher than Ashleigh Barty, and over fifteen percent higher than Osaka. As with her statistics in the context of historical U.S. Open winners, her ace rate and percentage of first serve points won are relatively lower, which again serves more to tell us about Raducanu’s style of play than her abilities alone. Moreover, Raducanu’s average dominance ratio over every match in her career for which statistics were kept was 1.29, compared to 1.04 for Barty and 1.08 for Osaka. She also won a greater percentage of return points than both Barty and Osaka.
The statistics corroborate the conclusion drawn from comparison of win-loss records: at age 19, Emma Raducanu is equally talented, or possibly even better, than Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty. Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that Raducanu will be the next Osaka, Barty, Serena Williams, or any other top player. All that there is to conclude is that the sky is indeed the limit for Emma Raducanu, and it will be nothing short of thrilling watching her get there.