Raducanu shone in US Open spotlight but she needs time and space to grow

Before Emma Raducanu took her unexpected first small steps into the big time at Wimbledon in July, she was planning her schedule as she finally started her full-time professional career. Her ranking of 366 severely limited the level of tournaments she could directly enter, so her modest plans were to compete in lower-level $25k ITF tournaments and to slowly build her ranking.

And so, as she basked in the glory of an unprecedented grand slam title run in New York that shocked her as much as anyone else, those plans destroyed for good, it made sense she was determined to enjoy every last moment of her success. When she was asked in her press conference to reflect on how her life will change and the superstardom to come, it was the very last thing on her mind.

“I have no idea when I’m going home,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing tomorrow. I’m just really trying to embrace the moment, really take it all in. 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.”

This is one of the greatest breakthrough runs in the history of the sport and her age isn’t the important part. Winning a grand slam tournament at 18 years old, eight months after her biggest worry in the world was whether her A-level exams would take place amid lockdowns, is spectacular in itself. But teenagers winning grand slam titles does happen on occasion; she is the third in three years.

What makes this astonishing is her sheer inexperience, how little time she has had to test her game in competition against the top players and how quickly and constantly she has adjusted. When she made her WTA debut at Nottingham just before Wimbledon, the occasion of facing world No 143 Harriet Dart in the first round was enough to stop her from playing her best tennis and she lost in straight sets.

She immediately rectified those nerves during her Wimbledon run. As people loudly debated her exit, she used it as a sign to improve her physical fitness. The 20 matches she played in 33 days, with 18 wins, is a fair reflection of her current condition. Her growth in that period was most demonstrated in the final as Leylah Fernandez offered by far the toughest resistance of all opponents she faced and remained resolute right until the end. Fernandez won seven games.

But the most impressive aspects of Raducanu’s rise also underline the obstacles to come. She has already achieved the ultimate goal in her sport, yet there are still elementary steps in her growth as a player that she will only take in the coming months. She is going to have to learn how to be effective on clay, a surface she only competed on as a junior, and to string together victories at WTA tournaments. While she was previously able to succeed and fail in the shadows, all eyes will be on her for good.

At the end of her first long trip abroad for competition, her new ranking of 23 ensures she will soon be able to enter every WTA tournament directly. Although her schedule is to be confirmed, she is listed to play in a WTA 500 event in Chicago later this month and then Indian Wells should she please.

Recent history underlines how difficult it can be to back up a grand slam title. For some it is the vertigo of life-changing highs, while the parity of the women’s game means there are so many players that have the potential to win any given tournament. Having spent barely any time as part of the chasing pack, she will have to adjust to the feeling of having a target on her back.

Tennis is also an extremely difficult sport to perform at a consistently high level in. Fortunes shift quickly, both in positive and negative directions, and losing is paramount to tennis and essential for growth. Even the best players in the world, including Novak Djokovic who has lost five times in 10 tournaments this year, frequently fail.

As Raducanu continues on her path it is imperative people allow her the space to grow, improve and make mistakes without burdening her with their pressure and impossible expectations. There is no value in being overly critical of losses that she has proven can be such essential lessons in her progress.

The British media and the public are notorious for their tendency to heap pressure on players, a curious arrangement that only serves to make any eventual success even harder to reach. Many people grasp how difficult it is to achieve great successes, but empathy is often absent when athletes do not succeed.

Throughout her time in New York, Raducanu has spoken frequently about the tightness of her team. She will need people around her, on and off her payroll, who prioritise what is best for her progress and wellbeing as a person in addition to her overall improvement as a player rather than her bank account.

For her part, it seems as if she has little interest in growing up too quickly. After yet another question about the changing pressure, expectations and stardom, Raducanu ended her press conference with a shrug and a smile: “I don’t feel absolutely any pressure,” she said. “I’m still only 18 years old. I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don’t think I should change anything.”




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