By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor
Ahead of the 2021 US Open tennis championships, Emma Raducanu was still battling through qualifiers to ensure her place in the tournament. A tournament that astoundingly, Raducanu went on to win in effortlessly endearing style.
This victory has undoubtedly propelled Raducanu into the spotlight. But her summer road to glory was not without bumps. At Wimbledon, an impressive third round victory over then world ranked No 45, Sorana Cirstea became overshadowed by an injury-enforced withdrawal in the fourth round, prompting John McEnroe to speculate that the experience had “got a little bit too much” for Raducanu. McEnroe’s hypothesis was gloriously dismantled by the US Open performance.
Fast forward a few weeks and Raducanu had returned, ready and rejuvenated. Rather than dwell on Wimbledon disappointment, Raducanu’s tennis did the talking. Drawing comparisons to the stupendous Williams sisters, throughout the US Open, she played with control and composure. Her ability to do the basics well coupled with her unique blend of ferocious forehands and sizzling serves immediately produced results. After completing a startingly straightforward seeming first round win over Stefanie Voegele, the impressive feat of Raducanu not dropping a single set in three qualifying rounds was whispered about with curious excitement.
As September arrived, Raducanu lit up the tournament, claiming the sublime scalp of Olympic champion, Belinda Bencic. In the process, she became only the fourth qualifier in Grand Slam history to reach a major semi-final. Before the quarter-final encounter, Bencic had only lost one of her last fourteen matches. Despite a slow start, Raducanu felt her way into the match, steadily getting her imperious groove together. Bencic’s vast experience pushed Raducanu to several deuce cliff edges where remarkably a mix of athleticism and ice cool execution of her scintillating technique kept the momentum Raducanu’s way. As against Cirstea, there were some jitters and duffed connections reflecting youthful nerves. But that composure remained to seal the semi-final spot.
And both US Open semi-finals were representative of youthful boldness. As Raducanu surged up the world rankings, Maria Sakarri was convincingly beaten by a player unburdened by expectations. Defeated by a wonderful teenage talent whose resilience refused to wilt and who never really looked like surrendering the joyous position she found herself. Further epitomising this year’s US Open as a tournament of youthful celebration was Leylah Fernandez’s journey to the final, her reputation enormously enhanced by her run yet simultaneously side-lined by the raucous adoration of Raducanu.
Victory in the final ensures, no matter which direction her tennis career takes her, that Raducanu will always be remembered as a Grand Slam Champion. Not only that but a champion who didn’t drop one set all tournament and whilst gliding through qualifiers, had booked her flights out of New York, anticipating an early exit. And this sincere humility is what has bestowed Raducanu with love and fandom. Compare her to Novak Djokovic, the Serb is at the pinnacle of his powers, has won everything there is but is relatively undisturbed by fans begging for selfies and autographed treasures. But then again, perhaps Djokovic is the anomaly within tennis. Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Andy Murray, Coco Gauff and now, Emma Raducanu have all had stints where fleetingly we ponder, in amazed awe, how they can be both charmingly charismatic off court and furiously ferocious on.
Federer, we love for his subtlety, the David Silva of tennis, an extremely slick operator who, having seen his warm-up shots at Wimbledon 2018 still gives me goosebumps. We root for Nadal’s spirit, eagerly roaring him back from the brink. Serena Williams is idolised for her barraging, individual and unsettling ferocity. Peak Williams, watching the tennis ball speedily soar was a thrilling blur of adrenalin. Gauff, another prodigy discovered at Wimbledon encompasses flair with exhilairting accuracy in her sweeping, precise connections.
Like Fernandez and Gauff, Raducanu is perhaps the overriding image of a tennis transition, the dominanace of seasoned brilliance giving way to waning legs. And now, for prominent youths in sport, “celebrity” status must be navigated. Since success, Raducanu has been balancing Royal Family commitments in between the courageous decision to seek a new coach. While splitting from Andrew Richardson may cause a stir, Raducanu’s decisiveness is indicative of her mature mentality and an awareness that today, more than ever, to continually succeed in sport, you must move forwards with change.
And so, from a summer of sunny success, where Raducanu, Fernandez and co go from here remains to be seen. More major tournaments? We certainly hope so. As for a generational changing of the guard? There’ll be a few wounded rivals seeking atonement. To do that, Raducanu’s remarkable set defence and personified calmness must be broken. Right now though, any chinks in her armour remain undiscovered.