As the tough, intense first set between Alizé Cornet and Emma Raducanu arrived at its decisive moment, with Cornet serving at 5-3, the Briton did everything in her power to hold off the inevitable. She stepped inside the baseline, attacking hard and early off both wings. But, like so many times on Tuesday night, Cornet simply refused to give in. She absorbed countless blows, flitting from sideline to sideline and, as Raducanu came steaming into the net, the Frenchwoman threaded a forehand winner down the line.
A year ago, Raducanu somehow pulled off one of the most surprising runs in tennis history, but 2022 has seen constant reminders of the trials and difficulties of this sport. In challenging, windy conditions, Raducanu received her most brutal reality check yet as her US Open title defence ended at the first hurdle in a 6-3, 6-3 loss.
From the moment the draw was announced, it was clear that Raducanu had been handed one of the toughest opponents possible. Cornet, the world No 40, is not only one of the highest ranked players to miss out on a top 32 seeding, she is also enjoying the best grand slam year of her career.
She finally reached her first grand slam quarter-final in emotional scenes at the Australian Open and she has beaten Iga Swiatek, Simona Halep, Garbiñe Muguruza and Jelena Ostapenko in majors this year. The news of her first-round opponent immediately led her to Twitter: "I wouldn't miss it for the world," she wrote. She was ready.
Raducanu emerged on Louis Armstrong Stadium to an intense ovation worthy of her status as defending champion, and throughout the match the crowd tried hard to animate her. Sitting in the front rows once again was Virginia Wade, the winner in 1968.
After a difficult year, as she adjusted to her new celebrity and the scrutiny that comes with it, Raducanu arrived in New York having seemingly found form in the nick of time, dismantling Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka in consecutive matches at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati. Raducanu said that Ohio was the first time since her title run that she had opted to swing freely and attack.
She tried hard to live up to that ethos on Tuesday night, continually looking to attack. But in the gusty wind, Cornet's experience came to the fore. She drew out points, sucking Raducanu into increasingly arduous exchanges, mixing up the trajectory of the ball and bringing her opponent forward with drop shots. Most importantly, she absorbed Raducanu's pace, counterpunched and produced spectacular lobs at full stretch.
Raducanu remained determined to hit through the conditions, but her errors outpaced her few spectacular winners. At 4-3 in the first set, Cornet produced a brilliant backhand lob winner at full stretch. She took the decisive break after a double fault and then held serve.
After Raducanu took a medical timeout for treatment on her hand, the second set began with rapid breaks of serve. Then Raducanu pieced together her cleanest stretch of ball striking and nailed a winning backhand down the line to break for 3-1. But after Cornet's level briefly dropped, the 32-year-old's supreme resourcefulness returned. She broke back with a supreme drop shot, and her hand skills and improvisational genius helped her roll through five games in a row to consolidate another famous win.
At any other venue in the world, this would not have been an awful loss for Raducanu. Cornet is 34th in the WTA race compared to Raducanu's 61, and she has played a central role in many of the biggest grand slam moments this year. She is a better tennis player than Raducanu at this moment in time, something that was reflected in the result. But none of that makes a first-round loss in a US Open title defence any less brutal.
Over the summer, as the US Open drew closer, Raducanu acknowledged the possibility that she could lose the 2,040 points she gained in 2021. That reality is now here: she will fall to 79th in the WTA rankings in the best-case scenario, and will be unseeded and in the qualifying draws. She has rebuilding to do.
But this was Cornet's moment. By taking to the court on Tuesday night, the 32 year-old broke the women's record for consecutive grand slam appearances with 63 - she hasn't missed one since 2007. As she often says, she has aged like wine, and no seed wants to see her standing in their way.