Emma Raducanu’s unprecedented run to the US Open final so soon after committing to the sport is not the first time she has burst through and demanded attention.
In November 2015, only three days after her 13th birthday, which meant she could finally compete in international under-18 tournaments, Raducanu travelled up to Liverpool for the Nike Junior International tournament. Five matches later, she had won the event.
Before her arrival on the International Tennis Federation’s junior circuit, Raducanu’s tennis-playing days were complemented with go-karting and later motocross, but as she neared her teens her tennis ability slowly began to garner attention. She won international events at under-11s and under-12s level and amid her successes she became part of the LTA pathway, joining her team for camps and trips abroad.
“When I started having results early on on those trips, it definitely was eye-opening that I could do something,” she said on Thursday. “But I never really realised that I would take tennis as a career until maybe two years ago. I always have my education as a backup. I was doing it alongside my tennis.’”
Since then, even as she competed sparsely as a junior, her name has been on most lips. Katie O’Brien, a former top 100 player and British No 1 who is now a Lawn Tennis Association national women’s tennis coach, heard them all. Then, one day in a national club competition not long after her retirement, she played alongside a 13-year-old Raducanu in doubles: “We were playing a tiebreak shootout and Emma was the star of the show,” said O’Brien in an interview, smiling. “Even at that age, she thrived on pressure and enjoyed playing in front of the crowd.”
Soon, Raducanu truly arrived. She started 2018 by winning three grade 2 junior tournaments and then she reached the quarter-finals of both junior Wimbledon and the US Open. With just seven tournaments and no doubles on her junior ranking, Raducanu had reached the top 20.
According to Matt James, who worked with her from September 2018 to 2020, her game was already extremely well-rounded but her body was her one obstacle: “She was picking up a lot of little niggles,” he said in an interview. “She wouldn’t really go back-to-back in a tournament. If she went quite far in a tournament, it would be quite tough for her to back it up. But when you think about it, she was obviously still in school, not having as much time in professional events. It was always going to be playing catch-up.”
Despite many fruitful weeks training with Raducanu, it was on their first trip to Antalya in Turkey that he truly became aware of the level of potential he was working with. The mental space that Raducanu inhabited once she stepped on to the court was a revelation: “She went out there, she won it all in straight sets and got better every match,” he said.
“It was the first time I’d seen this different personality, almost, on the match court. I’d been practising her for six to eight weeks. It was like: ‘Wow, this girl means serious business over here.’ A year later during a three-week trip to India, her fortitude provoked a similar reaction. Despite suffering from food poisoning shortly before the trip, she came through qualifying at a $25,000 (£18,000) event to win what remains the biggest title of her career.
For James, that mental strength quickly became her trademark quality and her composure is rooted in her refusal to give up even a speck of hope to her opponent by broadcasting negative emotions. Off the court, her personality defies simple categorisation. She enjoys quiet moments alone but when surrounded by other contemporaries her intelligence and humour shine through.
“If there’s not many players around, she’s not gonna go out and force it. She’s quite happy in her own company. But then she’s also happy being in the middle of attention. She always adapts. Even off the court, she always adapts to the situation,” he said, laughing.
In New York, Iain Bates, the LTA’s head of women’s tennis was similarly impressed by her off-court adaptability: “Even chatting to her after matches or mornings of matches, it could be anywhere,” he said. “And that’s the thing I find quite remarkable is how level headed she is despite the huge attention and the pressure that’s been on her.”
While the tennis world jumped back into action after the initial lockdowns, Raducanu took a different path. She competed in local domestic tournaments affiliated with the tours but she and her parents decided not to travel on the international tour. Many people hail her team and family’s decision to focus on slowly building herself into a more well-rounded person rather than obsessing over ranking points and burdening herself with pressure, as can be the case in tennis.
“I don’t think that fazed Emma or her parents too much,” said O’Brien. “They obviously valued education quite highly and I think that’s served Emma quite well. She’s got a really mature head on her shoulders. You could argue that if she’d been pulled out of school when she was 11, 12, she maybe wouldn’t have dealt with the pressure as well.” James concurs: “I think it was the plan all along, almost: ‘Let’s tick over to get to the A-levels [an A in maths and an A* in economics this summer] and then go full throttle from there.’”
O’Brien particularly attributes these decisions to Raducanu’s upbringing and the lack of toxic pressure on her to succeed. “They look at the holistic approach,” she says. “They’re incredibly thorough and everything’s got Emma’s best interest at heart. But one thing – I’m at an under-14 tournament now – the worst thing that parents can do is pass on their anxiety to their kids. I think the Raducanus have done very well. You don’t see too much reaction when watching Emma play, if at all.”
Since her breakthrough run to the 4th round on the grass at Wimbledon, Raducanu has changed her coach, ceasing work with Nigel Sears in favour of reuniting with former coach, Andrew Richardson. When speaking about her Wimbledon experience she has stressed that her retirement in the 4th round with breathing difficulties taught her to focus more on her fitness. She has demonstrated her improvement with nine wins over three weeks in New York.
The decisions that have led to Raducanu contesting her maiden grand slam final on Saturday have consistently been rooted in patience and perspective. No matter how the chips eventually fall, this is only the beginning.