When Marta Kostyuk and Emma Raducanu were growing up, coming through the junior rankings in the same age brackets at the same time, it was Kostyuk who turned heads with every backhand she struck.
Throughout her junior career she won everything, then she was the first to break through as a professional with a run to the Australian Open third round aged 15. Kostyuk remained one step ahead of her contemporaries at every turn until a month ago when two players, both also born in 2002, blew past her at once by reaching the US Open final.
One of those finalists, Raducanu, stood before her on Friday evening as the pair faced each other again but it was Kostyuk who stood up and clinched the victory to reach the semi-final at the Transylvania Open.
The Ukrainian ended Raducanu’s solid run in Cluj-Napoca with a brutally one-sided win, beating the US Open champion 6-2, 6-1 in 59 minutes.
After her performance Raducanu said she had woken up feeling fatigued. During her pre-match practice she was “limited in what she could do” and she believed that her tiredness was down to the toll of recent months as she finally began her full-time playing career, travelled frequently for the first time and saw her life change for ever at Wimbledon and the US Open.
“It’s been a lot of learnings and I think I’ve experienced a lot in the last six months with not so much gaps, and I’m just adapting to the fast-paced life of the tour and obviously still very new to it,” she said. “So I think it’s still going to take me some time to adjust.”
Kostyuk played an excellent match, landing many returns and frequently forcing errors from Raducanu with her standout athleticism while stepping inside the court and striking sweet backhand down-the-line winners when the opportunity presented itself.
However, Raducanu played badly – she sprayed forehand errors and lost control of her serve. She finished with seven double faults, including three on break points, and 41 unforced errors.
The gulf in experience between her and even players in her age group was plain to see. While Kostyuk was also born in 2002, she has played more than 40 tour-level events; Raducanu, including qualifying, has played eight. Kostyuk said afterwards that the dynamic was a source of frustration for her as she struggled to watch Raducanu and Leylah Fernandez leapfrog her at the US Open.
“I have to be honest, it was a bit rough for me to watch both of their runs. I’m trying to be the best I can be, so obviously I want to be where they are and I’m sure it’s gonna happen soon but I didn’t feel very nice,” she said.
In the same breath Kostyuk noted that their success has also allowed her to believe that she can do the same thing: “This is the thing they gave me which I’m very thankful for. Because leading something is never easy. When you are the first, it’s always extra pressure, you always have more expectations. It was very inspirational, I’m not gonna lie.”
A further consequence of Raducanu’s loss is another missed opportunity to face Simona Halep, her idol, on Romanian soil. Halep has continued to take positive steps forward at the end of a difficult season as she moved into the semi-finals of her home tournament, after coolly defeating her compatriot Jaqueline Cristian 6-1, 6-1 in 67 minutes.
Raducanu says that due to rising Covid cases, she is now unsure if she is going to go to Bucharest and see her grandmother or go home, but she shrugged off the prospect of shutting down her season with one tournament remaining in Linz after a week off. “I want to give myself a chance to see if I can reset, bounce back and finish the year strong,” she said.
“That’s the plan right now. I think that on being on tour, you’re gonna take losses and feel tired, maybe a lot of the time, so it’s all learning. Maybe I will feel better, maybe I will still feel tired, but we’ll see.”