A-level student to US Open champion: Emma Raducanu’s journey to the top

Tennis star says her calmness and mental strength were instilled in her by her parents

Nothing about what Emma Raducanu has achieved over the past three weeks in New York is normal. Qualifiers do not win grand slam titles; 18-year-olds do not win slams without dropping a set; teenagers do not waltz to US Open triumph on their debut.

But as she showed in 10 glorious performances, in heat, humidity and wind, Raducanu is not a normal teenager. In three months, she has gone from being a student waiting for her A-level results to reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon and then, in unprecedented fashion, to winning 10 straight matches to first qualify for the main draw at the US Open and then go all the way to the title to become the first British woman to win a grand slam since Virginia Wade at Wimbledon in 1977.

If any more evidence was needed that Raducanu offers much that is different, then it came not too long after her thrilling win over Leylah Fernandez on Saturday night, when she issued a message in Mandarin to all her friends and family in China, the homeland of her mother, Renee, thanking them for all their support.

Both Renee and her Romanian father, Ian, were unable to get to New York to see their daughter become a grand slam champion. Ranked 150 going into qualifying, there was no guarantee she would go far; by the time she made the fourth round, it was too late to sort out the waiver needed to expedite travel to the US. Instead, they watched on TV, safe in the knowledge that everything they had instilled in their daughter would give her every chance to perform well. “I would have loved them to be here [so that] we could all celebrate together … and experience the same things,” Raducanu said. “But they’re watching from home very proud.”

Born in Toronto, when Raducanu was two the family moved to England, settling in Bromley, south-east London. But it is her parental combination, it seems, that instilled a work ethic, belief and calmness that has taken her to grand slam glory. “I think the confidence comes from just inner belief,” Raducanu tells October’s edition of Vogue. “My mum comes from a Chinese background, they have very good self-belief. It’s not necessarily about telling everyone how good you are, but it’s about believing it within yourself. I really respect that about the culture.

Billy Jean King hands the trophy to Emma Raducanu after Saturday’s final.
Billy Jean King hands the trophy to Emma Raducanu after Saturday’s final. Photograph: Corey Sipkin/UPI/Shutterstock

“I think that the calmness and the mental strength definitely comes from my upbringing,” she said in New York. “I think my parents have both instilled in me from a very young age to definitely have a positive attitude on court, because when I was younger, it was definitely an absolute no-go if I had any sort of bad attitude. So from a young age, I definitely learnt that, and it’s followed me until now.”

Raducanu’s parents, who both work in financial services, always wanted her to finish her education. Even when the WTA tour resumed after a five-month coronavirus shutdown in August 2020, she stayed at home to focus on school, a decision that paid off last month when she received an A* in maths, the best mark possible, and an A in economics. Those grades were achieved at Newstead Wood school in Orpington, the alma mater of another British sporting superstar in Dina Asher-Smith.

Raducanu’s athleticism, too, was boosted by sensible choices. Introduced to tennis by her parents at the age of five, she enjoyed ballet, horse riding, swimming, go-karting and motocross, and her love of cars helped her relax between matches at the US Open. She watched the Dutch Grand Prix on the middle weekend and was doubtless cheering on her favourite driver, Daniel Ricciardo, on his way to victory in Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix in Monza.

Raducanu says she likes “a little bit of rap, but sometimes it makes me sleepy so I won’t listen to it pre-match. I quite enjoy something with a beat, but I also love jazz. I think it’s a really cool vibe, love to switch off to some jazz music.” And when she played a WTA event in Chicago just before the US Open, Raducanu revealed her love of architecture, finding time to visit “the Bean”, Anish Kapoor’s CloudGate sculpture, in the city between matches.

For many players, it can be easy to forget that there is life outside the tennis bubble, other things to keep your mind occupied and settled besides hitting a little yellow ball back and forth over a net. Life on tour can be lonely and as Naomi Osaka’s troubles have shown, mental health can be fragile. But Raducanu’s secret seems to be to embrace everything, from culture to food, friends and family to travel, music to Formula One. It’s something that has been instilled in her from a young age and something she intends to continue.

“I definitely think it’s the time to just switch off from any future thoughts or any plans, any schedule,” she said after her win on Saturday, when asked where she would be playing next. “I’ve got absolutely no clue. Right now, no care in the world, I’m just loving life.”

• This article was amended on 13 September 2021 to site Bromley in south-east London rather than in Kent.


Simon Cambers

The GuardianTramp

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