When Melanie Oudin beat Maria Sharapova as a wildcard entry at the 2009 US Open, you felt, watching from home, that you were witnessing the start of something historic. The American was just 17 and entirely unknown, having turned professional the previous year. She was the youngest player to reach the tournament’s quarter-final since Serena Williams a decade before. Though Oudin went on to lose to Caroline Wozniacki, she was breathlessly hailed as the next big talent in the women’s game and the endorsement deals and photo shoots rolled in.
For nearly a year Oudin received the A-list treatment that, within the world of women’s sport, is unique to tennis. At the time, I was a teenage player reaching the peak of my career, and obsessively consumed everything about Oudin: the interviews, the YouTube clips and analysis. My peers and I mimicked Oudin’s on-court stealth and her intense “Come on!”, and adopted her signature tiered ponytail.
But the hype was short-lived: in 2010 Oudin struggled to match her previous form and was abandoned by the American media. Her success was considered accidental; one commentator described her as “the poster child for the overhyped”. She went on to a successful career in mixed doubles, winning the US Open in 2011, but without singles titles, it didn’t matter. She retired quietly in 2017, aged 25.
Since Emma Raducanu won the US Open last autumn as an unseeded 18-year-old qualifier, I have often thought about Melanie Oudin. Raducanu’s achievements are far greater – she became the first British woman to win a Grand Slam for 44 years – and her fame has matched them in scale. She has secured multi-million-pound sponsorships from brands including Nike, Dior and Porsche; Raducanu won the BBC 2021 Sports Personality of the Year award, and in January she became an MBE. But her past nine months on court have been troubled: she has changed coach three times, suffered back and leg injuries, and failed to win two consecutive matches at any major tournament.
Raducanu has already begun to draw the same criticism Oudin did 12 years ago: that she is destined to be a one-hit wonder and is unlikely to repeat anything close to that extraordinary sequence of victories at the US Open. While she is mentioned alongside a new generation of tennis stars – including the world’s top-ranked female player, 21-year-old Iga Swiatek from Poland – some argue that Raducanu’s skill is comparatively limited. Since the US Open, her peers, including the runner-up, 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez, have moved ahead of her.
Injuries permitting, Raducanu will enter Wimbledon on 27 June as the world number 11. The overwhelming expectations placed on her by the British public will either buoy her performance on the grass or deepen her struggles. Do our hopes for Raducanu set her up for failure? Or might she become a model for how we measure success differently, in the process escaping the fate of the breakout tennis stars who came before her?
At Wimbledon last year, during her fourth-round match against Australia’s Ajla Tomljanović, Raducanu withdrew citing breathing difficulties and dizziness, which were assumed by many to be symptoms of a panic attack (though this was never confirmed). She was ridiculed by Piers Morgan and John McEnroe said she needed to “toughen up”. There was negativity from the public, too: Raducanu grew a substantial fan base during her improbable run at Wimbledon, having become the first British woman to progress to the round of 16 in nearly 20 years. It was her Grand Slam debut. The pressure going into a fourth-round match would have been formidable for a player ten years her senior, and the disappointment following her withdrawal was accordingly great.
Her performance at Wimbledon wasn’t enough to dent equally outsized expectations before the US Open, a couple of months later. As it turned out, she did not drop a set in the whole tournament, winning 6-4, 6-3 against Fernandez in the final.
What made Raducanu different from most other young tennis stars was her instant appeal beyond the game. She was sweet and seemingly unfazed by the attention she was receiving. Where most players travel abroad for training, she stayed local to her hometown of Bromley in south London and was nurtured by the Lawn Tennis Association. This London upbringing, and her half-Chinese, half-Romanian heritage, made her an emblem of modern Britain.
Within days of winning the US Open, she had appeared at New York’s Met Gala and was announced as a Tiffany & Co brand ambassador; commentators were soon predicting that she would become Britain’s first “billion-dollar” sports star (her worth is now estimated at £4.3m). By the new year, Raducanu had become a celebrity first and an athlete second, a status that obscured her youth and inexperience.
As her fame has grown, her game has become less consistent. Raducanu dropped her coach, Andrew Richardson, less than a fortnight after the US Open, briefly signing with Torben Beltz, before parting with him in April. Injuries forced her to withdraw or retire early from the Italian Open, the Monterrey Open, the Nottingham Open, and Abierto Zapopan in Mexico. A backlash began. Last November the England rugby union head coach, Eddie Jones, told a reporter “the big thing for good young players is distractions… There’s a reason why the young girl [Raducanu] who won the US Open hasn’t done so well afterwards”.
It took only a few months for Raducanu to learn that support for young tennis champions is conditional. She faces the added pressure of Britain having a vacancy for a tennis star, as Andy Murray reaches the twilight of his career, and only a small pool of players to draw on. As Neil Hopkins, the global head of strategy at the sports talent agency M&C Saatchi, tells me: “Her success in New York immediately propelled her into this vacuum of the post-Murray world of British tennis. I’m trying to think of other sports personalities who have had to take on such pressure, almost on behalf of a nation, and it’s very difficult to think of a footballer, for example, who has. And even then, they’re one of a team. With Raducanu, all the focus is on her.”
This would be enough to crush a young player in any sport. But the solitude of playing singles, in which keeping your head is often more important than controlling your body, makes it even more challenging. Other young female players, such as Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff, have spoken about the mental challenges of professional tennis: the depression that follows major tournaments; the anxiety of interacting with reporters; the gruelling nature of life on tour.
Raducanu has done something different by directly addressing the impact of having so much attention focused on her. In post-match press conferences since the start of the year, she has pushed back against the idea that she should be winning constantly. “If you had said to me last year, ‘Emma, what is your goal for the year?’ I’d be, like, ‘OK, I want to win one round in the main draw of a Grand Slam,’” she said following her opening round match at Indian Wells in March (she won, but lost in the third round). After her first round win at the French Open in May, she said: “I have no expectations of myself.” She lost her next match.
Raducanu has been consistent with this message, and strategic about when she shares it. Her brand campaigns have mostly focused on the hype that surrounds her. Before the Australian Open in January, a Nike advertisement showed Raducanu playing on court with a series of comments about her (both positive and negative) flashing in the background. In a recent interview, also with Nike, she said: “Everyone just expected me to win every single tournament I was ever going to play again. It’s a bit unrealistic, because perfection just doesn’t exist.”
It may seem an exaggeration to describe what Raducanu is doing as radical, but I think it is. Tennis is a sport that glamorises stoicism. The fetishisation of youth and early success has destroyed the careers of many young players (as well as those of athletes in other sports, and young artists). Raducanu’s honesty about what is happening to her is rare. On one level, she is doing what any professional athlete would do: improving her game and focusing on future tournaments. On another, she is actively combating a success-at-all-costs marketing machine that extends beyond the confines of her sport.
But while Raducanu’s plea for perspective may be genuine, it is also a marketing strategy – one devised by global brands that want a return on their substantial investment. “I’m pretty certain that Raducanu is in a position where she is 100 per cent focused on her game,” Hopkins says. “But your priority has to be about making sure your game is growing – that you are continuing to win.” If she struggles to achieve on court, sympathy may not remain a profitable strategy for her sponsors. Would it matter to Raducanu if she were to lose a few of her endorsements? Shedding some of the weight of celebrity might even be welcome.
Before this year’s Wimbledon, the message from Raducanu’s team was clear: don’t expect too much. Iain Bates, the head of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, told me: “She’s incredibly grounded, but we shouldn’t forget she’s only 19. She’s working hard to develop her game and establish herself on tour.” He is keen to emphasise how much Raducanu has done to inspire a new generation of British players, and he is right: her success, which followed her relatively normal girlhood, would have made a younger me feel that my tennis dreams were not impossible. Raducanu’s message, that she should be given time to try, fail and try again without rebuke, might attract some young players. Equally, if she is torn apart by the public for not always winning, it will put off many.
A good run at this year’s Wimbledon will show that Emma Raducanu’s US Open victory last September was no fluke; that she is on track to become an Osaka rather than an Oudin. But this is a narrow view of success, which fails to understand that tennis stars should have long careers – especially when they have so much talent and organisational backing. Andy Murray became British number one in 2006, but for years failed to make it to Grand Slam finals. Ups and downs, even lengthy ones, are normal at the top of the game. Raducanu understands this. “I want to connect the Emma that I want to be with the Emma I am right now,” she said in June. “And when I do that, I feel like I’m going to be pretty dangerous.”
The Wimbledon Championships run from 27 June to 10 July
[See also: Geoff Dyer: How to grow old in America]
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working