Tennis has tried and failed to woo Gen Z in recent years. The Game columnist Andy Murray believes women’s tennis’ newest Grand Slam champion is the crossover star the sport desperately needs.
Tim Henman summed it up better than anyone else could.
“It’s a joke,” laughed the former British number one in total disbelief on Saturday evening. Emma Raducanu had just systematically dismantled fellow teenage prodigy Leylah Fernandez 6-4, 6-3 in the US Open final.
It’s a joke how Raducanu held her nerve, securing victory moments after opening up her left knee while trying to reach a shot. It’s a joke that an 18-year-old qualifier, playing her 10th game of the tournament, could win a Grand Slam, the first person to ever do so. It’s a joke the pre-tournament 400-1 shot didn’t even drop a set.
Teenagers occasionally win Grand Slam titles – Raducanu is the third in the past three years, after Bianca Andreescu and Iga Swiatek – but what makes this story unprecedented is the Brit’s sheer lack of experience going into Flushing Meadows. Raducanu has still never won a match on the senior WTA Tour – Grand Slams exist in their own bubble – let alone a tournament. Partly, this is down to circumstance involving the COVID-19 pandemic – her team deciding to minimise travel with so many variables – and her own decision to focus on her education, but it is also indicative of how little senior tennis she has played, even compared with fellow teen sensation Coco Gauff.
At the beginning of 2021, Raducanu’s goals were to finish her A-Levels and compete in a few lower-level tournaments to improve her ranking from the low-300s. Well, it’s September and she currently has an A* in maths, an A in economics and is the US Open champion. She has rocketed to world No23. Not bad for someone who had to pull out of her Wimbledon fourth-round match with breathing difficulties, inspiring countless middle-aged men who get out of breath walking from the sofa to the drinks cabinet – plus a handful of former athletes who really should know better – to question her mental fortitude.
Thankfully, the first British woman to win a Grand Slam in 44 years – predecessor Virginia Wade was courtside throughout her epic run to the final in New York – has surrounded herself with a tight-knit team conspicuous for its lack of big names. Her coach Andrew Richardson has known Raducanu since she was 10 and was the perfect choice to travel to the States after previous trainer Nigel Sears – Andy Murray’s father-in-law – left his position after Wimbledon.
Richardson, a softly spoken sort who was best man at Henman’s wedding, has helped instil an inner belief and will help control the external pressures which will now inevitably follow. “No conversations, just enjoy,” he said after helping execute perhaps the biggest underdog story in tennis history.
It’s inevitable that offers of sponsorship, endorsements and media requests will follow. PR gurus are already fielding hundreds of calls a day from people wanting to board the Raducanu gravy train. Some believe she could Britain’s first cross-sport billion-pound star, eclipsing even Murray. Born in Canada to a Romanian father and Chinese mother – both of whom work in the finance sector – Raducanu is a marketer’s dream. She spoke with almost impossible maturity in the aftermath of her victory, sang along to Sweet Caroline before receiving her trophy and recorded a message for her Chinese fans in her second language on the social media platform Weibo. She loves both rap and jazz music, is a fan of architecture and did ballet, swimming and go-karting as a child.
And this is before we even discuss the supreme ball striking which typified her. No matter the match situation, she was always on all-out-attack mode.
“I have no idea when I’m going home,” she said. “I definitely think it’s the time to just switch off from any future thoughts or any plans, any schedule. I’ve got absolutely no clue. Right now, no care in the world, I’m just loving life.”
She must now be allowed to do exactly that. She must be supported by the WTA, too. Tennis can be a lonely sport, one where forging meaningful relationships with fellow competitors is notoriously difficult because of the innate singularity of one-on-one competitive sport. Naomi Osaka has been left to deal with her mental health struggles in the fierce public glare and the sport must now deal without one of its brightest stars while she takes an indefinite break from tennis.
Remember, it’s a joke how good Emma Raducanu could be. All tennis needs to do now, is to not become the punchline…
Andy Murray is a sports writer and columnist for The Game. Check out some of his other articles with us that feature both in our mag and in the most recent zine issue FANsided.