Readers Write In #407: Emma Raducanu the ultimate fairytale tennis story

Posted on September 14, 2021

13


(by Madan Mohan)

Emma Raducanu made history at the US Open on Saturday as the first ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam title. The US Open was also the second Grand Slam she had ever entered, beating Monica Seles’ record (on the women’s side) of winning a slam title in the fourth one that she entered (French Open 1990).  And while the Brit is not the lowest ranked player ever (she was ranked 150th) to win a slam title (that would be Mark Edmondson unless you count once high ranked players returning from slumps like Sloane Stephens), she would be ‘high’ up in the list and certainly the youngest

In fact, Raducanu’s story is unusual in so many ways that it lives up to Cinderella fairytale tropes well beyond the cliched use of the phrase. She was only just getting seriously started with a pro tennis career as of the time of playing Wimbledon earlier this year. She had made the quarterfinals of Wimbledon Juniors in 2018 – a good result but by no means spectacular.  She had won an ITF Juniors tournament in 2018 – in Chandigarh.  And, hear this, she also won a $25000 ITF pro event in Pune in 2019. 

But that was it.  When the pandemic struck, her attention returned to studies and she gave her A Level exams from a Grammar School in Bromley earlier this year.  It was not long before Wimbledon that she really began to play tennis on a regular basis again.

But we are just getting started.  Wimbledon almost didn’t give her the wild card that let her participate in the tournament (she was ranked 336 at that point) but did so after she beat Timea Babos at Glasgow. Apparently, even Tim Henman, a Wimbledon semifinalist attaining a ranking of no.4 in his playing days, wasn’t super chuffed about Raducanu’s wild card. Henman, of course, would go on to mentor her and could be seen courtside at her US Open matches, receiving generous acknowledgments from Raducanu after her victories.

Henman wasn’t the only one she initially failed to flatter.  As such, she was regarded as a good prospect but not that special by tennis scouts.  Yes, IMG & Co failed to see a grand slam winner in Raducanu.  That is what makes her story particularly unusual.

Raducanu is not a product of Florida (like many pros over the years since the Bolletierri days) nor Mallorca, Spain (where Nadal runs his academy and where last year’s breakout winner Iga Swiatek received some training). She didn’t really come through the system though she did receive professional coaching (the Lawn Tennis Association supported her as part of the LTA Pro Scholarship Programme too).  In fact, as of yet, even Wikipedia hasn’t gotten around to adding a ‘Coaching’ section to the article about Raducanu. It’s been too much too fast even for the Information Superhighway.

Which makes it all the more mystifying that the player tennis fans saw at the US Open was a stunningly complete, mature-beyond-her-years player.  Already by last Monday (the day of the Round of 16 matches), on Talk Tennis (the Tennis Warehouse forum), a member had made a thread to discuss who of Emma Raducanu, Leylah Fernandez and Cori Gauff was the most talented. And there were other members already saying on that very day that Emma was the one. One, in particular, an obnoxious Graf fanatic, even said, “I have seen the future of tennis and it’s Emma Raducanu.”  Dude is laughing all the way to the bank.  Lesson learnt:  Smugness may not always get its comeuppance and may even be rewarded at times by the Lord Almighty. Deal with it!

Even if some of them just took a wild swing and landed bulls eye, I too believe the tennis she produced lent itself to such prognostications (which might have otherwise been regarded as premature). When I saw her demolish no less a player than Belinda Bencic (the Tokyo Gold Medallist) in straight sets in the Quarter Final, I was a convert too. 

If I may indulge in the favourite pastime of many recreational tennis players – technique analysis – I immediately spotted her fluid movement, particularly when running across to hit a down the line forehand.  Raducanu doesn’t scurry with short steps, expending energy like many others on the WTA.  Instead, she takes a few big steps like the best guys on the ATP, particularly, a certain Roger Federer.  By doing so, she lands into the striking zone with a wide base and is well balanced as she executes the stroke.  She is also able to swing from further away from the ball, thus extending the hitting arm more.  This is why you saw her smack down the line forehand winners time and again in the tournament.

I didn’t count how many of those she struck.  I should have.  What I can tell you is she didn’t drop a set throughout the tournament (and, as a qualifier, she played 10 matches rather than the usual 7). I also saw her hit 110 mph aces down the T on big points in big matches (like quarters, semi or the final).  Why, she even hit a 105 mph out wide ace on championship point.  That may not be Serena Williams good, but it is really good.  The sheer, almost poetic, flow of her game is breath-taking to watch and cannot fail to attract the attention of tennis fans within minutes. 

So the question, again, is just how did a player who is Emma Raducanu good fly under the radar?  Has the pandemic made the job of scouts that difficult?  But even so, the professional punditry of tennis world wasn’t really talking about Raducanu at least until she beat Bencic. And why should I single them out to sneer at? Even after everything I saw, I was more inclined to bet on Leylah Fernandez in the final because she, after all, had beaten the heavyweights – Osaka, Svitolina and Sabalenka.  I thought good things would happen to Raducanu but just not so soon.

But here’s a fun fact:  The only previous meeting between Raducanu and Fernandez was at Wimbledon 2018 in the second run.  And…Raducanu won…in straight sets.

Did Fernandez remember?  Did she know?

It would have been tempting to end this article right there.  But I must also indulge in prognostication about her future.  A pertinent question has been raised about Raducanu not facing a single top 5 player en route to her title. Just how do we know how she shapes up against Ashleigh Barty or Simona Halep or, indeed, Aryna Sabalenka?  We don’t.  But…we may come to know pretty soon.  Indian Wells comes up in October and, in normal times, boasts the toughest draw of non-slam tournaments (other than the Year Ending Championship).   These are still covid times, though, and we cannot say if all the big stars will turn up for it. But if they do, Raducanu’s current ranking of 23 assures her a seed (yes, from qualifier to seed!) in the tournament.  And then, we may get to know.

But until then, we can do what she has chosen to do: enjoy the moment and bask in the glory of the ultimate fairytale tennis story.