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Emma Raducanu returns to Wimbledon: Tennis stars preview SW19 comeback

A year on from her Wimbledon debut, the British teenager returns to Centre Court as the first British woman to win a Grand Slam since 1977.

US Open 2021 prize money
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Published: Wednesday, 29th June 2022 at 1:14 pm
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This interview was originally published in Radio Times magazine.

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Rocketing to sudden superstardom has its downside. Just ask Emma Raducanu – if you can make yourself heard above the babble of voices declaring an opinion as she returns to Wimbledon, where she first electrified the nation 12 months ago.

This time last year Raducanu was 18, just two months out of secondary school and taking her first steps on the women’s professional tennis tour. Granted a wildcard into Wimbledon, she was ranked 338 but within days was on every front page as she won her way through to the last 16, before breathing difficulties forced her to withdraw.

It could be very different this summer, though. And three-time Wimbledon singles champion John McEnroe says Raducanu could win the whole tournament. “It’s reasonable to think she has a chance,” he says. “She’s a supremely talented individual and has an excellent chance to make a good run. If she’s physically fit, I’d be very surprised if she lost early. To think she couldn’t win would be ridiculous.”

Raducanu returns to Wimbledon having produced a feat as startling as any in sporting history. At the US Open in September 2021 she became the first player, male or female, ever to come through qualifying en route to the title.

McEnroe knows something of Raducanu’s path. In 1977 he came through qualifying as an 18-year-old to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals. The next year he crashed out of Wimbledon in the first round (although he had the consolation of winning five other tournaments that year).

“Expectations go up greatly when you pull off something like that [winning a grand slam], and Emma did something no one in the history of tennis has done,” says McEnroe. “I’m assuming expectations in Britain are pretty high. The change in her life is overwhelming. The scrutiny is a bit much at times. It’s the same everywhere, not just Britain. The bigger you are, the harder you fall. When you’re a kid and just trying to grow up, and it’s in front of people, it can be frustrating.”

Raducanu’s US Open victory, less than 10 weeks after Wimbledon, remains so brain-scrambling to tennis insiders that they still struggle to articulate how astonishing it was.

“Ridiculous,” commentator Andrew Castle says with a smile and a shake of the head, as his BBC colleague Annabel Croft adds in wonder: “It was meant to be. The stars just aligned.”

It was crazy stuff, and more was to come. Two days after lifting the trophy, Raducanu was mixing with the smart set at New York’s exclusive Met Gala. A month later she was at the Bond premiere in London, and soon her agent Max Eisenbud – who helped Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova make more than £200 million in career endorsements – sealed Raducanu deals with Tiffany, Porsche, Dior, Evian, British Airways and Vodafone, to join her existing kit sponsorships with Nike and Wilson rackets.

Emma Raducanu
Emma Raducanu Getty

The Bromley teenager who had won barely four figures in prize money before Wimbledon 2021 was now worth more than £10 million. But as Raducanu herself put it at the time she was “doing everything backwards”.

Having achieved immediately what countless brilliant players never do, Raducanu remained an inexperienced newcomer when she returned to the unforgiving rigours of the professional tour, yet suddenly she was expected to win every match. By the end of May this year, she had played 24 matches since her US Open triumph and won only 10. The unsparing public gaze wasn’t impressed, but those inside the sport understand that it takes time to consolidate early success.

Catherine Whitaker, anchor of Amazon Prime’s tennis broadcasting team and host of Channel 4’s coverage the night Raducanu won in New York, says, “Even the best players in the world lose most weeks – only one player wins each tournament, and the rest lose. So regardless of future success, Emma is going to lose a lot.”

Croft agrees. “We’re putting such unimaginable pressure on her by expecting her to win everything,” she says. “And she signed up to millions of dollars of contracts where everyone wants a piece of her, making the demands on her time huge.”

At the eye of the storm, Raducanu remains philosophical. “I don’t think anyone would say, ‘I wish I didn’t win a grand slam at 18,’” she has pointed out reasonably. “I wanted to win a grand slam, and I did that. For it to happen very soon definitely comes with a lot of challenges. But I’d much rather have that and learn from all those experiences, keep building and progressing.”

But a further hurdle on the path of that progress has been a tendency to be injury prone. Competing indoors in Austria last autumn it was a hip spasm; in Australia in January she had large blisters on her racket hand; there was a hip strain in Mexico in February; a stiff back in California in March; a foot blister in Prague in April; her back again in Rome in May; and this month on the Nottingham grass it was a rib muscle.

Many link it to the fact that Raducanu has had three coaches in the past 12 months, and no coach at all since the end of April. A trusted guide is vital for the most experienced players, never mind a teenager navigating a bewildering new landscape.

“It’s unusual for a player of any age to win a major and then decide you don’t want to continue with that coach,” says McEnroe. “It does seem like there’s been a lot of change to overcome, so much that it would be difficult for anyone, never mind a person of 19.”

However, the problem is certainly not in her family, which is as solid as ever. Raducanu is the only child of Romanian and Chinese parents, Ian and Renee. Born in Toronto, she has lived in south London since the age of two. She began tennis at age five, but education was her chief focus until she left school in April last year, armed with A-grade A-levels in maths and economics.

Ian Raducanu has always been influential in his daughter’s coaching decisions, but it takes a village to propel an elite player to success. Pulverising training demands mean that careful conditioning is needed to avoid injury. That requires a fitness trainer and a physiotherapist alongside the coach in the chief role. Some players have more – a nutritionist, perhaps, and a sports psychologist.

Even then, the tour can be lonely. Making friends with opponents you must try to beat the next day is difficult, while Judy Murray has noted how isolating it can be for young players to be far from home and only surrounded by people who are at least a decade older than them and reliant on them for their salary.

Raducanu is not without support, though. Iain Bates, head of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, is “helping on an interim basis”, while LTA doubles coach Louis Cayer is giving “technical guidance” when he has time. Bates has known Raducanu since she was 13, having first become aware of her promise four years previously.

“It’s a crazy contradiction that she’s a grand slam champion during the building phase of her career,” he says. “But she’s the same Emma as before – light-hearted, easy-going, engaging, smart, likes to laugh and joke, knows when it’s time to work.

“Because of her, people are talking about women’s tennis in a way I’ve never known. People connect with her enjoyment and excitement when they watch her. She’s inspired countless young girls to pick up a racket.

“I was in New York with her for the US Open, and what impressed me most was her composure in dealing with everything she was facing, and her ability to learn on the job.”

The ability to work your way through adversity is essential, as fellow Brit Andy Murray knows all too well after years of injury struggles. In February the Scot re-entered the top 100 for the first time since 2018, though an injury this month ruled him out of Queen’s. However, McEnroe says his grit will be an example to all at Wimbledon. “I can’t imagine playing with a metal hip [following surgery] like he is, so God bless him and I hope he wins. That would be a hell of a story.”

Meanwhile, Croft and Castle think a great result for Raducanu would be making the fourth round, as she did last year when playing with the innocent freedom of one with nothing to lose.

“She and the family are handling things really well,” says Castle reassuringly. “She’s doing a fantastic job. Just hit the tennis ball and enjoy the game, Emma. Don’t worry about anything. It’s going to be fine.”

Emma Raducanu plays her next match at Wimbledon 2022 today, Wednesday 29th June 2022. If you’re looking for something else to watch, check out our TV Guide, or visit our dedicated hub for more Sports news.

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