British superstar Emma Raducanu shrugged off an injury-marred lead-up, and blocked out unfathomable pressure, to make a winning return to Wimbledon.
In her Centre Court debut, the 19-year-old beat dangerous grass-courter Alison Van Uytvanck to set up a second-round clash with former world No.4 Caroline Garcia.
❤️🔥❤️🔥❤️🔥loved that! center courttt energyyy🕊🕊🇬🇧🇬🇧🤍🤍>>> pic.twitter.com/xDsbdFuka3— Emma Raducanu (@EmmaRaducanu) June 27, 2022
This was Raducanu's first competitive match in three weeks; in her very first grass-court match of the season in Nottingham, she played just seven games against Viktorija Golubic before retiring due to a side strain.
She had lost four of her most recent five matches entering Wimbledon, seeing her 2022 win-loss record slump to a concerning 8-11.
But as soon as she strode onto Centre Court, the reigning US Open champion was in her element.
"I'd say big matches and big occasions are the ones that I really get the most fired up for," she said after her 6-4 6-4 win over Van Uytvanck.
"It's definitely a different feeling, and I love playing on the big stages. I think that instead of shying away from it, I really thrive in that.
"This place for me is still the most special, the most prestigious. Centre Court is smaller, size-wise, than (Arthur) Ashe (Stadium), by quite a lot, (but) it definitely feels bigger in significance. The feeling that I get here is definitely special compared to all the other tournaments.
"I wouldn't take away winning the US Open for anything, no matter what life throws at me, I've got that. But yeah, (winning on Centre Court today) it's up there."
Raducanu, currently ranked 11th, was reminded during her on-court post-match interview that at this time last year, she was a little-known world No.338 playing on an outside court at the All England Club
The pressure and expectation on her is undoubtedly immense, but despite her age, and her inexperience on tour, she showed remarkable poise in her first appearance on the sport's most storied court.
She produced a mostly tidy performance to subdue Van Uytvank, landing more than 70 per cent of first serves, generating 12 break points and limiting her unforced errors to 18.
From 3-1 down in the second set, she responded by winning five of the last six games.
"It wasn't relief (to win), it was just happiness," said Raducanu, who arrived on Centre Court for the match smiling broadly and waving to the crowd.
"From the moment I walked out through those gates I could really just feel the energy and support and everyone was behind me from the word go. I really just tried to cherish every single point on there ... like it could have been one of my last on that court.
"I know that when it comes to the matches, I feel like I really especially switch on, and I don't feel like I need masses of preparation; of course I do to build physically, but I think a lot of it is mental.
"I definitely went out with the belief today. And I know that I can compete with anyone on the other side of the court, when I really go for it."
She will need that belief, for her path through the draw at Wimbledon gets no easier.
After navigating past Van Uytvanck — the Belgian had gone 12-2 on grass this year with titles at second-tier events in Surbiton and Gaiba — Raducanu now faces Garcia, the Frenchwoman on a six-match winning streak after winning last week's WTA grass-court tournament in Bad Homburg.
But as Raducanu noted, Grand Slams are where she thrives; she has now won all five of her first-round Slam matches and owns a glittering 13-3 win-loss record at the majors, contrasting sharply with her 8-14 record at tour-level.
"I feel like I've learned a lot in the last year, but it hasn't necessarily all been terrible," Raducanu said.
"I have had a tough year, like it's no secret. But it is all worth it, just to go out on Centre Court and get a win like that.
"I definitely am very happy to be here and all the lessons that I've taken from the last year will only hold me in good stead for the future."