What a way to announce your career! The US Open is only one tennis title – albeit one of the four greatest in the world – and everything did fall into place for Emma Raducanu, from the very start of the tournament. Actually, coming through the qualifiers often gives momentum to a young hopeful tennis player. Two or three victories, against steadily tougher opponents, will build confidence ahead of the main draw.
But Raducanu seemed to have such momentum that the engravers might as well have added her name to the trophy by about the end of Week One. Yes, she was a teeny bit fortunate that her scheduled first-round opponent, the experienced Jennifer Brady, pulled out with injury. And yes, Emma next faced a pretty exhausted Shelby Rogers, after the US player’s own epic victory over Ash Barty.
From that point on, it all seemed inevitable. She closed in relentlessly on the Final – as did fellow teen Leylah Fernandez in the other half of the draw. So, having flown so high so early, where does Emma go from here?
We have seen plenty of young shooting stars in the past, who then burn out, lose form, lose momentum, fall to Earth. Remember Eugenie Bouchard, or Jelena Dokic? Jennifer Capriati? There are often proper reasons, of course. You could weep for Laura Robson, beset with injuries following her London Olympic gold medal – although Laura is now a wise and eloquent pundit – and for Monica Seles, her career shockingly ruined by a crazed knife attacker.
Every athlete, of course, is only one bad injury away from oblivion. And most players will have fitness battles to fight at some stage of a career. Interestingly one of Emma’s US Open opponents, Belinda Bencic, was a rising star in her own right – winning the Eastbourne title at only 18 in 2015. And Belinda’s mentor Martina Hingis was a dazzling youngster who later re-invented herself as an outstanding coach, and also a highly accomplished player well into her thirties.
But Emma is no one-stage rocket. She has a terrific all-court game; she looks rather slight but has not been found out for stamina; her tennis brain is quick and she is evidently a great learner; and in terms of personality she seems, well, remarkably normal.
In retrospect – and it’s now being conveniently forgotten – Emma was ill served, and arguably exploited, by the decision to schedule her Wimbledon showdown with Alja Tomljanovic for huge coverage on prime-time network television. That adventure ended, literally, in tears and now looks like an unwise decision in which a young player’s interests came second to commercial pressures.
That must not happen again – and it probably won’t, but there are no guarantees. Wimbledon and the US Open are, by some distance, the two highest-profile tournaments on the calendar. The rest of the WTA tour is played out in less dazzling light. The real world of professional tennis is a relentless round of hotel rooms and airport departure lounges. It will do Emma no harm – if not to get caught in flight delays – at least to slot in alongside her fellow competitors.
The 2021 Eastbourne week, of course, was drastically scaled down in many respects. Public access was limited and, understandably, we lost a lot of atmosphere as a result. Indeed, media numbers were sharply reduced – your Herald correspondent was actually the only local reporter with week-long access! - and player interviews, if any, were restricted to those infamous Zoom press conferences (“Kevin, you need to unmute...”).
Scaled up a few notches, the same was true at Wimbledon and Flushing Meadow. Player entourages were smaller, and media presence was less intrusive. The Raducanu camp got it just right. Her parents stayed at home, happy to trust her coach and mentor Andrew Richardson, who has known Emma since childhood: a canny decision, that, even though it entailed the slightly controversial side-lining of coach Nigel Sears, the father-in-law of Andy Murray.
So if there was media excitement, Raducanu just floated above it. She soaked up every moment, not like some artificially fashioned child star but like the A-level student who had just completed exams with her Year 13 mates. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to find that, after the Final, she had texted her opponent, the equally brilliant and engaging Fernandez, and fixed to go for a pizza and cola.
Assuming, if we dare, that normality will return in 2022, the Devonshire Park will be bursting with talent in the last week of June. Will the young lass from Bromley – just an hour or so for Mum and Dad – be likely to join us? There are a couple of reasons to hope so.
Firstly, as every year, the Viking International at Eastbourne directly precedes Wimbledon. It is the perfect grass-court warm-up for SW19. Typically, the women’s draw includes a dozen or fifteen of the world Top 20.
Secondly, we have proved again and again that we can cope with the big names. Security is nearly always genial and discreet. I admit to persisting with my own slightly subversive campaign for the security staff to ditch those incongruous black suits and ludicrous dark glasses – let’s kit them out with cheerful green or white jackets, or those loud multi-stripe blazers that the cricket patrons wear! But nonetheless, the Devonshire Park creates one of the happiest and most welcoming settings on the circuit.
And nine months from now, will we still be in raptures over Raducanu? Right now, she could dance on clouds, star in a Netflix movie or get herself elected to Parliament. As it happens, she could also take her pick of the world’s top universities, but that particular career path now seems improbable. So it’s on with the tennis education.
Tennis never quite sleeps, but the autumn run-in towards Christmas is the nearest thing to a close season. New Year tournaments will then build up towards the Australian Open in January – although ironically, the current WTA rankings were set just before the US Open, and Emma may need wild cards to permit her entry into autumn tournaments such as the forthcoming Indian Wells. But despite that lack of major match-play, Raducanu can expect a sky-high seeding in Melbourne. Unless of course, she is too busy filling out her UCAS forms….
Never mind the ifs and buts. This was the perfect Grand Slam triumph by a young lady who seems impossibly perfect. Aren’t eighteen-year-olds supposed to be grumpy post-adolescents? Who never get off their phones, and always need to be nudged just to load their dirty coffee mugs into the dishwasher?
Actually, no. The kids are ok. Let Emma Raducanu speak for her generation, and be the face of her generation. Laugh with her and drink in with her the lungfuls of fresh air and glee. Let the younger children pick up their racquets and play, if not with her world-conquering skills, at least with her zest and relish. And if you are a Herald reader old enough to be her grandad – I speak for myself – then dust off those old racquets from the garden shed and join your grandkids for a knock-up!