The greatest role models in the world? Emma Raducanu and her fellow teenagers

It’s hard to admire gen Z without a twang of discomfort. They present qualities – strength under pressure, maturity, humility – that the middle aged should have nailed down

When Mr Z wakes up earlier than me, which is always, it’s my habit when I stir to ask him what is going on in the world. My plan is to trick him into feeling like an all-seeing Hermes character (the god, not the delivery firm), rather than a man who married someone really lazy.

When this happened on Sunday, he told me: “Everyone’s talking about Emma Raducanu.” I knew she had won the US Open already because we had had a late night. I would have known anyway; the build up to the match had a fairytale quality. She was so young and her potential victory so laden with significance – the first British woman to win a grand slam singles title since Virginia Wade, 44 years ago – that it had taken on an air of inevitability, at least to those of us who didn’t have to do anything but watch.

Opinion the morning after was divided four ways. One part was triumph over the likes of Piers Morgan and John McEnroe, who had had quite a bit to say about the 18-year-old’s ability to handle pressure over the summer, when she dropped out of Wimbledon during her last-16 match after becoming breathless.

It is peculiar the appeal this pastime holds for a certain kind of middle-aged man, making unkind assertions about the character of a prominent young woman – almost as though her magnificence were a scam that only a straight-talking chap could unmask. Raducanu didn’t need to win a grand slam for Morgan to look like a fool, but it was fun to watch the two collide.

One part was pointing out that this was the reality of migration and identity – nobody is more British, or has been more patriotically celebrated, than Raducanu, who was born in Canada to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, is fluent in Mandarin and arrived in Kent aged two. The screenwriter Dominic Minghella took this idea to its logical conclusion: “You can celebrate your Raducanus or you can push back boats. You can’t do both.”

One part was saying what a racket it was, that you could win the US Open but still be too young to go out for a drink in that country. This is what passes for a relatable opinion when you don’t want to have a real opinion.

The final part was pausing to reflect that Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, also still in her teens, was as gracious in defeat as Raducanu was in victory. And also open and generous. And also incredibly good at tennis.

It’s hard to admire people this young without a twang of discomfort: they are role-modelling qualities to the world – strength under pressure, maturity, humility – that the middle aged and beyond should have nailed down. In a way, it’s easier when it’s all about sport, the natural arena for them to best their forebears. Even so, it’s hard not to notice the person underneath the sports kit and be chastened by a maturity and discipline we are long past expecting from adults in public life.

When their athleticism won’t unshackle from their moral compass or self-awareness – in the case of the older but still surprisingly young Marcus Rashford, say, or Simone Biles – they throw the norms of the world of the grownups into harsher relief. When their pitch is the future of the planet – as with Greta Thunberg – it’s even more shaming to older adults. She made her voice so powerful even when she was far from power’s orbit, while millions of us who had more influence failed to use it.

That is probably what provokes those now-regular tantrums the old commentariat have about the young – a fair amount of guilt and inadequacy, which wouldn’t necessarily be misplaced in any of us, even though very few of us should feel bad about never winning a grand slam.

For the rest of us, it’s hard to be sour when we are cheering our heads off. This is the perfect antidote to the confected clash between generations: a country bursting with pride for Raducanu, who did as much for optimism as she did for tennis.

Contributor

Zoe Williams

The GuardianTramp

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