The Ultimate Tennis Disrupter Faces the Wimbledon Crucible

The British tennis-sphere gasped earlier this month.

For the third time this year, the teen sensation Emma Raducanu had to quit in the middle of the match because of an injury. Just weeks before Wimbledon, her participation in the event, the most anticipated homecoming this sport has experienced in years, appeared to be in jeopardy.

A lengthy headline in The Daily Mail put it this way:

“Emma Raducanu has ‘no idea’ if she’ll be fit for Wimbledon as she RETIRES just 33 minutes into her first match on grass since last summer, after US Open champion struggled through just seven games with ‘freak’ injury to her left side.” (Emphasis theirs.)

A day later, however, Raducanu, who is 19 years old, put out word that she expected to be just fine for Wimbledon, which begins Monday. But there will still be jitters until she takes her first swings, most likely on Centre Court, and perhaps manages to win her opening match. A kingdom is dreaming.

“This is stress that is off the scale really,” said Annabel Croft, a British former professional and once rising young star who is one of a handful of women with an inkling of the kind of pressure Raducanu is under.

Wimbledon is where it all began a year ago for Raducanu. Back then, she was just weeks removed from taking her university entrance exams, a practically unknown player with smooth strokes and an ability to glide across the court. Raducanu cruised to the fourth round at Wimbledon, charming the fans with her athleticism and graceful style before retiring with breathing difficulty against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia.

As it turned out, that run was just a warm-up. Two months later at the U.S. Open, she won 10 consecutive matches on her way to the title. Raducanu became the first British woman to win a Grand Slam title since Virginia Wade in 1977.

Raducanu, a British citizen born in Canada to a Chinese mother and Romanian father, was seemingly built for the global sports stardom that has followed.

British fans’ expectations of Raducanu mean that the pressure on her is “off the scale,” the former tennis player Annabel Croft said.Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

There was the Met Gala, and then millions of dollars in sponsorships from the highest-end corporations — Porsche, Tiffany and Co., British Airways, Evian, Dior and Vodafone, and on and on. Now, when someone says “Emma” in Britain, they more likely mean Raducanu than Jane Austen. She has become the game’s ultimate disrupter.

Coco Gauff, the 18-year-old American, said in May that Raducanu had altered how she viewed winning a Grand Slam title — meaning she now believes anyone could do it, even her. Gauff made the finals of the French Open earlier this month.

Raducanu’s unlikely path could inspire more players: Developing into a Grand Slam winner while shunning tennis academy life and preparing to attend one of England’s storied universities. Winning one of the sport’s four major championships in just the second try. Doing it with a seeming immunity to pressure.

Raducanu recently announced that she has decided not to hire a full-time coach. She has been through four, and she has determined that what she really needs is high-intensity hitting partners. “Sparring,” as she put it recently. That will get her more used to the pace of the highest level of tennis. Playing without a coach is also something most top players just don’t do.

For this disruption to be successful, at some point Raducanu’s results will have to return to the level she reached at the end of last summer. Her record is an undistinguished 8-11 this year.

She and her former coaches have said she got tripped up by Covid-19 in December, which interrupted her off-season training. She entered the season in a diminished physical condition. That, perhaps, led to the nagging injuries and not having the season she had hoped for. She said recently that because of the U.S. Open win and the 2,000 points it produced, her ranking (No. 11) is probably better than her game.

All of this, of course, would be fine if Raducanu were just another player just beginning her second year as a full-time professional. Raducanu is so new to this life that last month in Paris, where she played in the main draw of the French Open for the first time, she said she is looking forward to her second full year as a pro because she would no longer be so clueless about her surroundings every week.

“I’m always asking where everything is,” she said.

And yet, Raducanu is the reigning U.S. Open champion, and the first Grand Slam champion to emerge from a qualifying tournament. She was the BBC’s sports personality of the year for 2021, and the reason the Lawn Tennis Association, which oversees tennis in Britain, reports a boomlet in participation since September.

For seven consecutive months, adult monthly participation has steadily increased, said John Dolan, a spokesman for the organization. Women’s participation during the first three months of 2022 was stronger than it has been the past five years. Annual participation among 16- to 34-year-olds is up 10 percent.

“My academy is absolutely packed with little boys and girls wanting to be the next one,” Clinton Coleman, a global scout for IMG, the sport’s top representation firm, and the head professional of a London tennis center, said of the Raducanu phenomenon. “Never seen anything like it.”

Simon Briggs, the tennis correspondent for The Telegraph, one of the major British news organizations, said that a year ago he thought he was going to have to find another line of work. Andy Murray’s career had hit its twilight and Britain’s talent pipeline seemed out of gas.

Raducanu received medical attention before retiring from her fourth-round match at Wimbledon last year.Credit…Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA, via Shutterstock

Then Raducanu made Wimbledon’s fourth round. Briggs had to write a story on her virtually every day once she began the summer hard court season in North America. Three days after Raducanu lost in the second round of the French Open, Briggs was still filing stories about her.

“She’s got to be the biggest female sports story here since the Second World War,” Briggs said last week.

Jo Durie, a top 10 player from Britain in the 1970s who commentates on tennis for the BBC, said people who don’t even follow sports often stop her in the market to ask about Raducanu.

“She’s so well-known people expect her to play well and win all the time,” Durie said. “Of course it’s not fair. She’s so young.”

It’s possible only Christine Truman can understand what Raducanu’s transformation into “Emma” has really been like. Truman, 81, reached the semifinals of Wimbledon when she was 16 years old and won the French Open two years later. The victory earned her a voucher worth 40 pounds ($112 in the United States at the time) that could not be used on anything tennis-related because that would violate the rules then on professionalism. But she became a household name practically overnight.

She was tall and blonde and easily recognized and could not go to the bread line, or ride the escalator down to the subway, or visit the pharmacist without being stopped. She met Winston Churchill, who had sent her congratulatory telegrams. He was quite old by then, though it was still a thrill for her.

“Winston, it’s the tennis girl,” Clementine Churchill said to her husband, who shook Truman’s hand.

In her mid-20s, Truman said, she thought she could both “have fun” and stay at the top of the game. It did not work so well.

Her advice to Raducanu?

“Remember what made you good and don’t lose sight of that,” she said in an interview last week.

And hire a coach.

“They can spur you on when you’re doing well and bring you back up when you’re doubting yourself,” she said. “If they have the belief, it rubs off on you.”

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