At some stage in the coming days, Emma Raducanu will return home with the US Open trophy safely packed away, a grand slam title winner at the age of 18. Together with a whistle-stop round of media commitments, which included a visit to the New York Stock Exchange, she has been congratulated by the Queen and in parliament and her stunning triumph in New York has captured the imagination of a nation, dominated the news on TV and radio. It’s a life-changing moment for Raducanu and for British tennis, it is a huge opportunity.
In the wake of her incredible success, Raducanu was quick to thank many of the people involved in her development, from Matt James, the coach who helped her most in recent years in Bromley, to the support of her family, who moved to Britain when she was aged two and who instilled the work ethic, drive and determination to accompany her innate talent.
She also thanked the work of the LTA, the UK’s governing body of tennis, an organisation much maligned, especially in recent years. While the question of whether systems can create champions will always be debated, as the recipients of an annual surplus from Wimbledon that last year yielded £45.7m, the LTA is scrutinised for the way it spends its money.
However, in the case of Raducanu, the LTA deserves some credit. Having moved away from a one-size-fits-all programme in the past few years, it has become more flexible to players’ needs. In 2018, Raducanu joined the Pro Scholarship Programme (PSP), “offered to players between 16 and 24 who have the best chance of reaching the ATP/WTA top 100 in singles within five years”. It gives them the support they need, including coaching, access to science and medical services and wildcards to tournaments.
“We invest in players for a five-year period,” Iain Bates, the LTA’s head of women’s tennis told the Guardian. “The purpose is trying to give people the security of that time period, but also making it finite, where players don’t become dependent on the LTA for their entire career. It’s clear where that support begins and ends. I think it’s an important message for us in how we do support those players.
“For Emma, we were able to leverage a guy called Matt James. He did a lot of the really hard work at 16 and 17, that real kind of formation stage, supporting Emma through school years. He was so flexible around being at Bromley [where Raducanu trained], being at the NTC [National Training Centre], travelling with her, doing all the kind of hard yards that’s really required for a player of that age.
“With the scholarship programme, what we try to do is say you’ve got choices and we try to be flexible around what you believe is the right set up for you as a person. Because tennis is so highly individual, it’s quite difficult to come up with a one size fits all approach, which is why we’ve got the opportunity where you can work at your own place with your own coach. We will use investment funding to help support that. You can access science and medicine services.
“What’s exceptional about it is how she’s broken through so quickly. Especially after not huge amounts of tennis during the lockdown periods due to challenges with the schedule for a player ranked 350. Combining education with an aspiring professional career, some concerns over travel during a pandemic, how quickly she was able to adapt and improve is quite remarkable.”
Before Andy Murray, who won his first major title at the US Open in 2012 but who trained outside of the LTA for much of his junior career, Britain had endured 77 years without a men’s grand slam champion. Raducanu is the first British woman to win a grand slam title since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977. When Murray won Wimbledon in 2013, the hope was that it would lead to a boon for tennis in Britain; instead, participation figures fell between 2016 and 2020, according to Sport England.
Though it has risen since the Covid-19 pandemic, Judy Murray, who has been critical of the failure to take advantage of both her sons’ success, this week again lamented the lack of investment in public tennis courts in Scotland.
Scott Lloyd, who became the LTA’s chief executive in 2017, this week outlined plans to revamp local park courts. Lloyd wants an investment from the government of between £15m and £20m, which, he told the Guardian, would bring back into use 40%, a total of 1,800 of the UK’s park courts. Going straight to central government, he said, would help to get it done and make the courts available at a nominal charge. “Opening up public facilities to our population is central to growing tennis, to growing our sport,” he said.
Bates said he would probably have signed off on having six players in qualifying and three making it through to the main draw. Raducanu’s success was a fantastic surprise; the hope now is that she inspires both her peers and the next generation. The infrastructure required, it seems, is there.
“There’s no small effort here,” Lloyd said. “Anyone that’s ever worked with her knows that she’s always been a special talent. But that support network and her diligence and focus and professionalism has been long in the making.”