So: that happened. As Emma Raducanu emerged from Arthur Ashe Stadium clutching the US Open trophy to her chest, the blood on her knee still visible from where she had fallen, it was possible to feel a little dazed, a little concussed, to feel the edges of the night dissolving a little. In this new unreality an 18-year-old qualifier from Bromley is tennis’s newest star, a figure of adulation and idolisation well beyond the wet island for whom she has just claimed a first grand slam women’s title in 44 years.
You could lose yourself in the records and the milestones: the first qualifier to win a major title in the Open era, the youngest slam winner since Maria Sharapova, the first woman to win a major at only her second attempt. You could seek out historical context. But comparing Raducanu to the 17-year-old Boris Becker winning Wimbledon in 1985 doesn’t quite work, because Becker was a top-20 player at the time.
You could compare it to Tiger Woods at the 1997 Masters, but everyone knew how good Woods was, if not quite how good he would be. And so perhaps the first reaction to Raducanu’s victory is also the most genuine: the paranormal state it seemed to generate, the sense of walls and floors shifting, a vague and confusing happiness that you could neither pin down nor fully explain.
All this will, as Raducanu herself admitted, take a while to sink in. You hope that once the photographs have been taken and the obligatory media rounds completed, she gets the time and space she needs to process this violent and spectacular detonation of her world. But out there, where Raducanu’s win was already creating its own electronic blast radius, time and space were already in short supply.
And so the parlour games could begin in earnest. Was it the biggest shock in tennis history? Was it the greatest underdog story in British sport? The most incredible sporting achievement by an individual athlete? Was it the greatest achievement in sport, ever? What do any of these questions even mean? Do the answers even exist? And what do we really mean by asking them?
There is a certain paradox at work here: a product not just of the triumph itself, but of the expectations it violated, the orthodoxies rewritten, the jaws loosened. We are told that her win is an astonishing, unprecedented triumph that nonetheless proves she was always destined for this level. But these things can’t really be true at once: part of the surprise is that, based on what we knew about Raducanu and about tennis, this shouldn’t have happened.
Unlike other teenage prodigies like Coco Gauff, Denmark’s Clara Tauson or the beaten finalist Leylah Fernandez, Raducanu had virtually no pedigree to speak of: she has still never won a match on the WTA Tour, much less a title. In part this was a product of the pandemic, and her team’s decision to limit her travel and prioritise her education. Even so, before we all climb aboard the hype train, it’s worth considering: are we really measuring the achievement here, or simply the shock?
These questions matter because if Raducanu is to enjoy any sort of a fair crack at success in the coming months and years, we owe it to her to put her achievement in perspective: to at least admit the possibility that this was a glorious aligning of the fates, a happy confluence of form and feel and freedom enabled by a kind draw and a sport in flux.
Raducanu did not have to play a single top-10 player or previous grand slam finalist. All the seeds, including world No 1 Ashleigh Barty, were cleared from her section of the draw. None of which should detract from the scale of her accomplishment, the stunning cleanness of her groundstrokes, her seeming immunity to pressure. But it should at least inform what it is realistic or reasonable to expect from her in the immediate future.
Iga Swiatek won last year’s French Open in similar circumstances: a new teenage star sweeping all before her (including grand slam winners Simona Halep and Sofia Kenin) without dropping a set. As Poland’s first ever grand slam winner, she found herself imprisoned in a cage of expectations that left her drained, exhausted, seeing tennis balls when she closed her eyes at night.
Raducanu is her own woman and will process this success in her own way. Even so, she will soon be forced to grapple with the dilemma that awaits all precocious young athletes: the burden of outrunning that initial inferno of success, of placating a public that wants to keep being shocked, to keep seeing miracles. And so, after we have all justifiably revelled and shared in her triumph, perhaps the best thing we can do is leave her alone for a bit.