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17 January 2024

Will Emma Raducanu always be an enigma?

Backing up her early success means the star must withdraw from the public.

By Emma John

On Tuesday, Emma Raducanu played her first Grand Slam match in a year. The 21-year-old Brit all but disappeared from view after ankle and wrist surgeries in 2023, but elusiveness has only increased her popularity. Her opening-round match in the Australian Open was played to a capacity crowd – no surprise, given thousands had already showed up to watch her practise.

Raducanu bested the American Shelby Rogers with her pace around the court, diamond-cut forehands and the occasional touch of pure imagination (a drop shot near the end of the second set was so well disguised it could have got a job at MI5). Having won the match, she went to work on the hearts of the fans, walking both sides of the court to ensure that no autograph-hunter left disappointed. “I missed that feeling of playing and interacting with the crowd,” she said afterwards, “so I wanted to spend some time with them. I heard some young kids calling my name and it’s hard to walk away.”

Ever since her surprise, historic US Open title in 2021 at the age of only 18, Raducanu has been a natural star athlete: charismatic, hard-working, with lovely manners and conventional good looks. She has also spent much of the past two years fighting injury – and the fact that her performances couldn’t live up to her early, unlooked-for success had clearly become a burden. Last week she said that she has often felt she was “playing with a backpack of rocks”.

The women’s tennis circuit has never been a particularly comfortable environment for young athletes to grow up in. It is a strange, disconnected world where teenagers find themselves spending long evenings, and often weeks, in their own company – or stuck with the same parent. Old friendships are hard to maintain when you’re so often away from home, and new ones are tough to forge across an unpredictable tournament-based timetable – harder still when your fellow players have reached the other side of adulthood.

Youth and beauty have long been commodified in the tennis industry, while the powerful influence of male tennis coaches has left an uncomfortable legacy. Michael Mewshaw’s 1993 book Ladies of the Court: Grace and Disgrace on the Women’s Tennis Tour exposed the dangers to those adolescents “moulded” for success – sometimes by their own fathers, sometimes by far older boyfriends. The book was reissued in 2019 for the #MeToo generation and last year, the player-turned-commentator Pam Shriver said that tennis remains a sport in which vulnerable female talent is still exploited.

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So it’s understandable that Raducanu’s family took a protective approach. She played very few tournaments on the junior international circuit, prioritising her education as long as possible. After her stellar entrance to the WTA tour in 2021 – reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon, then winning in New York – her circle tightened even further. For all her public profile, there are few people, even within tennis, who claim to know Raducanu well.

Instead, the story that has grown up around her has been based on commercial decisions that she and her family have made. Tennis pundits begged for the new US Open champion to be “left alone” to pursue her career without the added pressure of constant scrutiny. But in the absence of success on court (or juicy personal revelations), the media and public alike fixated on her “brand value”. The sponsorships she accrued – Porsche, Nike, Tiffany and more – were deemed a distraction, the reason for her slow slide down the world rankings. Perhaps the thought that a teenage Raducanu had overperformed for her age and stage, and that her physique was struggling with the rigours of the tour, was simply too mundane to credit.

Last week, in the aftermath of the Auckland Open in New Zealand, Raducanu inverted that narrative – during her nine months off court, it was her work with corporations that had inspired her return to training. “A lot of the time on tour, it’s kind of ad hoc, you know, that’s the norm. Having a clear planning structure… seems to work in other industries so applying it to my own was a good idea.”

Who can learn most from Raducanu’s tennis hiatus, though: her, or us? The American player Coco Gauff proved the worth of her own steady progress, from winning a match at Wimbledon in 2019 as a 15-year-old prodigy to her first Grand Slam title in the US Open last September. She is already back under the microscope in Melbourne. “Can Coco Gauff back up New York glory?” asked a Guardian headline this week – echoing the question with which Raducanu has been haunted for the past two years. 

[See also: In search of the meaning of sport]

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