Why there is melancholy in Emma Raducanu’s New York fairy tale


In the history of tennis, 126 women have won a Grand Slam tournament. Thirty-eight of them did so without dropping a single set. Twenty-eight were teenagers at the time of their first victory. Twenty-one were British, although most of them date from a time when women still regularly played in wide-brimmed hats and corsets. Nine were not seeded. You had to go through qualifying just to get to the tournament itself. That should at least give some idea of ​​why Emma Raducanu’s US Open victory on September 11 is hailed as one of the most unlikely triumphs in sports history.

But, of course, there is more to it. It wasn’t until a few years ago that Raducanu even set his sights on tennis as a career. It was only his second major tournament, after an emotional run to the fourth round at Wimbledon earlier this summer. Remarkably, she has yet to win a game on the women’s main tour, play on clay, or have a three-set game at the senior level. And so really the only way we can begin to deal with Raducanu’s victory is to be a little stunned and astonished by it; realize that for all the justifications imposed on it in retrospect, it still doesn’t make much sense.

Raducanu is 18, a skillful player but no one has the idea of ​​a powerful hitter or a defensive brain. She is grounded, well balanced and mentally strong. Since Wimbledon, where she retired mid-game due to breathing difficulties, she has worked hard on her fitness and conditioning. But we knew all this a month ago, and yet not a single person alive – let alone Raducanu herself, who had booked herself for the first flight home from New York after qualifying – has seen this. to come.

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How did it happen? In part, she took advantage of the circumstances. She was scheduled to meet world number one Ashleigh Barty in the fourth round, world number four Karolina Pliskova in the semifinals, world number two Aryna Sabalenka in the final. Instead, all were unexpectedly beaten before she could face them, giving her a favorable run against opponents who matched her fast rally style. 11th seed Belinda Bencic, whom Raducanu beat in the quarter-finals, was the highest-ranked player she has faced the entire tournament.

This, in turn, is a reflection of the unprecedented fluidity of women’s football: a large and varied talent base without a single outstanding dominant player. The last nine Grand Slam tournaments have produced eight different winners. At various times over the past few years, Jelena Ostapenko, Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek have all been named as the next big thing in women’s tennis. And they were, until the next one came. None of this, of course, has been of the slightest interest to much of the British media, who in his lavish Raducanu party managed to inflate a rather fine outsider story into some sort of super exercise. surreal forecast, predicting billions of dollars. fortunes in dollars and several Grand Slam successes. Of course, the far-fetched predictions of billion dollar fortunes and multiple Grand Slam successes could still come true. But it’s important to remember that this is all still fleeting and fresh, the sample size still tiny, the subject essentially still a teenage girl trying to establish her place in the world.

Part of the reason so much hope has been invested in Raducanu, you think, is the state of tennis itself, a sport in desperate search of new faces, new narratives, new rivalries, new rivalries, new blood. Men’s tennis has spent more than a decade in the sickening grip of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and their increasingly deranged online fandoms. British tennis has spent almost as long worrying about the inevitable decline of Andy Murray, and for all the efforts of Johanna Konta (good but not that interesting), Laura Robson (interesting but not so good) and Heather Watson (neither neither good nor interesting), none of the most promising British players have really threatened to fill the void.

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And so it is that in this prison of waiting and nostalgia advances Raducanu, who seems to mock external pressure; who, unlike many 18 year old athletes, plays and talks like she is 18. It’s hard to overstate how much tennis needs it right now, after more than a year of empty stadiums, sterile bubbles and outdated scenarios; of exhausted and disgruntled gamers exhausted by the endless treadmill of nasal swabs and abuse of social media and business hotels.

Like many emerging torchbearers of the younger generation – Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz, Italian Jannik Sinner, Canadian Leylah Fernandez – Emma Raducanu still feels pure and vital and relatively untouched by it all. She hasn’t yet been crushed by touring life, tabloid talks, or internet trolls. She was not co-opted in the culture wars. She was not chased down the street by photographers. She didn’t have bad form, she was asked why she isn’t playing as well as she was. She is hardly lost. It is possible to feel elated and sad at the same time about this. “This is the last time she will play totally without waiting,” said former British number one Andrew Castle. This is what made his winning moment so beautiful, so perfect, so fragile, so irreplaceable. Most of all, you hope she enjoyed it.

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