On 25 April, the day before Emma Raducanu was due to compete in the 2023 Madrid Open tennis tournament, she took part in a press conference. The exchange with journalists began like this:
Q. Hi Emma, how’s it going?
A. Good, how are you?
Q. Fine, thanks. How’s your physical state this week?
A. It’s OK.
A. It’s OK.
Q. Have you been doing anything different with them?
The questions kept coming: on the state of her game, on her forthcoming draw, on her recent performance in Miami, on her friend and fellow player Jodie Burrage. Quickly, however, it became clear that Raducanu had nothing left to say. After a grand total of 58 words uttered in response to 16 questions, the press conference was called to an abrupt halt.
Just over a week later, on 3 May, Raducanu announced that she requires surgery to both wrists and her ankle, and will miss both the French Open and Wimbledon. Many experts believe that we may not see her play again until 2024. Thus ends the first age of Raducanu’s career: a curiously turbulent parabola of success and regression in which she exploded into life, became one of Britain’s most recognisable athletes and then achieved virtually nothing of note on a tennis court for almost two years.
Since winning the US Open in a spectacular upset in 2021, she is yet to reach the final of any other tournament, or go beyond the second round of any Grand Slam. She has still never beaten a top-ten-ranked player, despite fleetingly becoming one herself last summer. She has suffered from at least 13 injuries.
Yet as her Madrid press conference made clear, the real story of Raducanu’s rise and fall goes beyond ranking points or tournament records, or even the five coaches she employed in the space of 18 months. Gradually and by degrees, something important has been lost. Boundless optimism has given way to a hard-bitten discontent. Somewhere along the line Raducanu did not simply mislay the whip in her forehand or her knack for winning tennis matches. She mislaid her joy.
Ever since her breakthrough victory Raducanu has found herself pursued by a torrent of takes, a hurricane of hype, a prurient interest not remotely of her own creation and which she was powerless to arrest. As she cut a swathe through the draw in New York City in 2021, editors and producers and brand managers were already grasping her enormous content-generating potential: photoshoots, feature spreads, TV slots, endorsements, chin-stroking columns in popular current affairs magazines. Her triumph was hailed, with entirely intentional exaggeration, as the greatest ever in British sport. Wild predictions were made of billion-dollar fortunes and multiple Grand Slam titles.
For an 18-year-old girl with no real expectation or preparation, this in itself would have been a disorientating, concussive experience. “Dehumanisation and canonisation are not polar but related,” Tanya Gold recently wrote in these pages. She was referring to the royal family, but it could apply just as well to young female athletes. The same process that feted Raducanu also appropriated her, instrumentalised and objectified her, converted her into a vessel for our opinions.
This is not a textbook case of the British media building up a celebrity only to tear them down. On the contrary: even as Raducanu’s tennis and physical fitness declined, the great majority of her press has been either laudatory or deeply sympathetic. Rather, everyone – from her cheerleaders to her detractors, from the media to the corporate world – has essentially been in on the same hustle: a bubble of perpetual zeitgeist and never-ending chatter that has swallowed her whole.
Naturally, there is a gendered aspect to this. Failing male athletes are, almost without exception, allowed to return to the anonymity from which they emerged. Young successful women, by contrast, remain public property for as long as the public chooses. As the fame of these women is so often tied up in their image, brands and the media are required to keep them in a state of permanent visibility. While Raducanu herself has deleted all social media apps from her phone and tried to limit her commercial engagements, the Raducanu-industrial complex always needs to be fed.
Her occasional branded Instagram posts are invariably picked apart by commenters urging her to stop posing and get back on the practice court. “You’re not making this very easy,” a journalist scolded her at one point during her awkward Madrid press conference. In both instances there is a kind of blithe entitlement being expressed: the very modern idea that by dint of her fame and profile, she owes us something every time she gets up in the morning.
Given all this, who can really blame Raducanu for retreating into the sweet agony of the surgeon’s knife? Perhaps, in the long run, the only real way of breaking the cycle is to break out of it.
She is still only 20 years old, an age at which most of us are still making mistakes and finding the size and shape of what matters to us. Some time out of the spotlight, away from the tyranny of expectations, may be exactly what she needs. Time to go back to first principles. Time to rebuild her game and her body. Time to work out what makes her happy, what she really wants out of life. Time to think. Time to breathe. Time, above all, to discover some new answers.
This article appears in the 10 May 2023 issue of the New Statesman, What could go wrong?