When Emma Raducanu won the US Open last year, she dropped her racket, sank to the ground and covered her face with her hands.
It was a familiar scene, repeated over the years by the first Grand Slam winners; Daniil Medvedev also fell to the ground when he won his opening Grand Slam a day after Raducanu, as did Dominic Thiem a year earlier.
Even 23-time Grand Slam winner Serena Williams, who will “evolve away from tennis” after this tournament, looked shocked when she won her first at the 1999 US Open.
But after that moment of euphoria, there often seems to be a gap before that peak can be reached again: 34 of the 45 first-time Grand Slam winners since 2000 have endured a wait at least one year for another, if they won a second. title at all.
Williams herself had to wait two and a half years to win her second Grand Slam.
Alongside Williams, tennis has been dominated for 20 years by players for whom losing seems harder than winning: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
Winning considerably more than one Grand Slam has become normalized, even expected, somewhat obscuring the difficulties of claiming the first.
In tennis, a solitary individual sport that requires constant travel for 10 months a year across different time zones and environments, the psychological pressure of winning a Grand Slam is different compared to other sports.
“A lot of times when there’s social support, I look to my left, I look to my right, I see my partner giving me a fist pump… That kind of social support can be very important for an individual to manage performance anxiety,” explains sports psychologist Dr. Jarrod Spencer on CNN Sport.
“But [when] it’s just one on one, you look to your left and to your right and you realize you’re alone. This requires a deep belief in oneself that is unlike anything else.”
And with a unique scoring system that creates danger on almost every point, much of playing tennis is “actually in your head,” as the Eurosport expert and former world no. 7 Barbara Schett tells CNN.
Winning seems to create a virtuous circle, deepening self-confidence which in turn builds confidence to deploy at crucial points in close matches.
“When I was in the top 10,” says Schett, “I was at the stage where I went on the court and thought, ‘I’m not going to lose this match.’ There is absolutely no chance.’ I can only imagine how … the legends of our game would feel when they step on the court.”
Schett played Williams three times in her career and never defeated her. They last met at the French Open in 2003 and Schett lost 6-0, 6-0.
“I had already lost the match before I played her because her court presence was incredible,” Schett recalls.
“I just felt like, ‘How am I going to beat this girl?’ She is physically much better. She plays much louder. She believes in herself. And I better go to the dressing room’”.
But winning can create a sense of fallibility as well as invincibility, creating a new set of expectations and goals to consider.
After Raducanu’s triumph at the US Open, pundits were quick to hail her as a future multiple Grand Slam winner due to her powerful groundstrokes and consistently aggressive serve.
She brought in sponsor after sponsor and PR experts pegged her with the potential to become Britain’s first billion-dollar sports star.
“Everyone expected me to win every tournament I would play again. It’s a bit unreal because perfection just doesn’t exist,” Raducanu said in a recent interview with Nike.
A succession of injuries has marred Raducanu’s first full year on tour with blisters, back problems, side strain and hip injuries all forcing her to withdraw from several tournaments throughout the season.
In her three Grand Slam appearances since that magical two weeks in New York, Raducanu has only reached the second round and fallen to players below her on each occasion.
“Outwardly there are a lot of expectations,” says Schett. “Obviously he wants to win another one. He wants to show everyone that he wasn’t a one-day or two-week wonder and that he can do more, but the pressure and expectations are extremely high in his case.”
For a 19-year-old competing in her first year on the WTA Tour, it’s been a solid, if unremarkable, season, but the stratospheric expectations surrounding the Brit have reframed each loss as something akin to a catastrophic failure.
Goals, as well as expectations, change after a major win like a Grand Slam title.
Dominic Thiem has experienced a similar trajectory to Raducanu since winning his maiden Grand Slam at the 2020 US Open, plummeting from the upper echelons of the game to a ranking as low as world no. . 352.
A nagging wrist injury hampered the Austrian as he embraced his new status as a Grand Slam winner.
“When you fight for a goal, leave everything and achieve it, everything changes,” Thiem told Austrian newspaper Der Standard in April 2021.
“On the other hand, in tennis everything goes very fast, you don’t have time to enjoy the victory, and if you’re not at 100%, you lose. It happened to me this year.”
To explain the psychological effects of achieving an important goal, Spencer compares it to a more everyday experience: eating.
“When you’re hungry, you’ll do whatever it takes to get food,” he says. “And then once you get to the point of satiety where you feel full, then it’s like, I can’t eat another bite, I don’t want anything for a long time.”
“And so it’s very normal and natural, just like eating a big meal that sometimes an athlete, after winning something really important, can lose a little bit of momentum for a while.”
The emotional costs of elite sport are becoming more apparent every year as athletes begin to speak openly about mental health and its importance.
At last year’s French Open, four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka withdrew to protect her mental health after a furore erupted following her refusal to hold post-match press conferences match
Afterwards, she revealed she had “suffered long bouts of depression” and “huge waves of anxiety” since her first Grand Slam triumph in 2018.
Iga Swiatek, meanwhile, praised her sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz for the role she played in helping her win the 2020 French Open.
Managing the “emotional energy” that drains the sport is key to recalibrating an athlete’s goals and expectations, Spencer explains.
Thiem has begun to rebuild from his year in the wilderness, winning his first ATP Tour match in 14 months with a first-round victory at the Bastad Open against Finland’s Emil Ruusuvuori in July 2022.
“My last win was in Rome in 2021, somehow it feels like a different world,” he said afterwards, according to the BBC.
“A lot, a lot happened. It was tough, but it was also a really good experience, I think, for life in general. I’m really happy to get that first win here today.”
In recent weeks, Raducanu has also shown flashes of the form that propelled her to tennis stardom with wins over Williams and Victoria Azarenka at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati before losing to Jessica Pegula in the third round, only the his second match against a top 10 player.
He will face Alizé Cornet in the first round of the US Open as he begins his title defence, while Thiem – also appearing in the tournament for the first time since winning it – will play Pablo Carreño Busta.