Towards the end of the second set, as Emma Raducanu stared with infuriation into the face of a first-round defeat, the 18-year-old smacked her leg in angry encouragement and muttered a few choice words under her breath. What followed, after what had amounted to a constant struggle against the gritty world No 124, Polona Hercog, was a reminder not just of the brilliance but the resilience that propelled Raducanu to such improbable glory at the US Open six weeks ago.
Her first victory at a regular WTA event – a symbolic feat if only it didn’t pale into such ordinary status compared with what she has already achieved – this milestone was as much about mettle as talent. After a seamless start, racing into a 4-1 lead against an experienced but fading opponent, she had uncharacteristically stuttered, surrendered the first set, and come within just one game of defeat as she failed to hit top gear. But after riling herself up once more, still without a new coach to glean encouragement from in the crowd, Raducanu won seven of the last eight games to clinch the second set and blitz the third.
It was a gruelling reminder of the rigours and relentlessness of life on the main tour but one Raducanu rose to with resolve. She had called for patience in the build-up to the Transylvania Open as the search for a new full-time coach continues with some disturbance in the background. But as Raducanu herself pointed out, coming through experiences such as these on her own will be increasingly valuable in the long run.
For a while, at least, it seemed as though it wouldn’t require anything near Raducanu’s best. Hercog, who was ranked No 35 in the world a decade ago but has declined sharply this season, drew on all her strength to save five points in her opening service game and seemed to have few answers for Raducanu’s aggressive returns, the Slovenian’s defence steadily worn down behind the baseline.
But at 4-2 down, Hercog’s cunning variety, with a particularly effective backhand slice, began to cause an unusually error-prone Raducanu problems. The momentum in the match turned as Hercog broke Raducanu’s serve and then consolidated it the following service game. With the first set back on even keel, Raducanu’s reactions began to tell the tale of the increasing intensity, roaring after an emphatic passing shot and equally deft drop shot put pressure back on Hercog’s serve. The 30-year-old held firm, though, and soon doused Raducanu’s fire into frustration, her shoulders slumping as another series of unfamiliar errors handed Hercog the first set in 47 minutes.
Perhaps, most surprising was that although Hercog was playing well and refusing to offer any points cheaply, she was rarely doing anything spectacular. The gulf in class between the pair was evident, with Raducanu unstoppable in flashes, but struggling to keep that rhythm. A spectacular drive-volley at 2-2 staved off pressure on her serve and a wickedly spinning backhand slice saved breakpoint at 4-4 when the match felt in danger of slipping away from the teenager. But at 6-5, with Hercog serving to stay in the set, Raducanu raised her game to something more resemblant of the fantasy in New York. After spurning two set points with wild thrashes at timid second serves, there was no mercy or mistake the third time around, drumming Hercog into submission with heavy groundstrokes.
Nothing had been afforded easily up until that point but at one set apiece, the spirit seemed to drain from Hercog, who was thoroughly outclassed in the decider. A game at the death saved her the undeserved embarrassment of a whitewash in the set but, by that point, Raducanu’s victory had long felt inevitable. It might not have been her finest performance – one founded on perseverance and fortitude rather than blistering ability – but that will only add to the sense of catharsis. It has been a long wait for a win since celebrating with the trophy at the US Open and as she turned to a near-silent arena in Cluj, this time the prevailing emotion was more plain relief.