Moment that mattered: Emma Raducanu wins the US Open
At the end of 2021 we spoke to Iain Bates, head of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, about a British teenager's astonishing victory in New York
11th September 2021 (Taken from: #44)
This article was published in Delayed Gratification in December 2021
Ever since he sat in a packed Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City and watched 18-year-old British player Emma Raducanu win the US Open and become the first qualifier in modern tennis history to win a Grand Slam, Iain Bates has been chewing over one important question. The head of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, the sport’s governing body in Great Britain, wonders if this was the greatest underdog achievement in British sporting history.
“The best [contender] I can come up with is Justin Rose coming fourth in the Open,” says Bates, who was a member of Raducanu’s five-strong team throughout the three weeks she was in New York.
There are similarities. Rose was a 17-year-old amateur player when he shocked the golf world by finishing joint fourth at the 1998 British Open Championship. In football, Nottingham Forest winning back-to-back European Cups in 1979 and 1980 or Wimbledon FC’s 1988 FA Cup final win over Liverpool are mentioned as possible contenders for a greater British odds-beating triumph. But Emma Raducanu’s achievement, he believes, eclipses all of them.
Ranked 150th in the world before the tournament, Raducanu had first to negotiate the qualifying rounds. She’d had a good Wimbledon a few months earlier, reaching the fourth round as a wild-card entrant ranked 345th in the world, but there were modest expectations from her first US Open. It was, more than anything, a chance to gain experience. She was booked to fly home before the main draw was even set to begin.
Somebody was going to have to play unbelievable tennis to beat her. I thought ‘this actually could be on”
But her and Bates’s plane tickets back to the UK were soon rescheduled. Raducanu breezed through the qualifiers, and then just kept on winning. She beat Chinese number one Zhang Shuai in the second round, a player who had demolished Raducanu in straight sets during a warm-up tournament just a month earlier. Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo and Shelby Rogers of the US were dispatched in the third and fourth rounds respectively. At what point in her remarkable run did Bates believe Raducanu could go all the way and actually win the tournament? “It was when Emma won the quarter-final match against [Switzerland’s] Belinda Bencic, who had won gold in Tokyo,” he says. “That was probably the biggest test she faced [and] she played an almost perfect match. And what that was really starting to tell me was that somebody was going to have to play unbelievable tennis to beat her. I thought ‘this actually could be on’.”
And it was. She swatted aside Greece’s Maria Sakkari, seeded 17th, in the semi-finals. In the final she faced Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez, who had already beaten the current champion and favourite Naomi Osaka. Raducanu prevailed in a sensational match, winning 6-4, 6-3. She was the first British woman to win a Grand Slam in 44 years and she had done it without dropping a single set along the way.
“I felt a combination of emotions: relief and then joy, utter joy,” recalls Bates of the moment victory was assured with a final ace. The moment was even better, he says, for being among the 24,000-strong crowd. “I’d been at the Tokyo Olympics, behind closed doors, where the atmosphere was pretty much generated by volunteers, players and coaches. So to be in the biggest stadium in world tennis, under the lights, was a pretty special atmosphere. It’s a moment that will live in my memory forever.” Afterwards Bates, Raducanu and the rest of her team celebrated with a midnight sushi dinner in her hotel suite, having sung ‘Sweet Caroline’ together on the minibus ride back
Bates first met Raducanu when she was elevated to the LTA’s Pro Scholarship Programme at 16, even though she first came onto the radar of the organisation after being spotted at a grass-court mini-tournament when she was nine. “The thing that always struck me with Emma from very early on was just how single-minded she was,” says Bates. “She was building her tennis for the future, not just the moment that she was in, which is still quite a rare quality. A lot of people get bogged down in winning [immediately].” The LTA starts working with talented players before they are ten and has two residential centres at which those with promise stay when training. “Tennis is a very difficult sport because it becomes so intense at an early age,” says Bates. “There are so many different requirements for being successful in the game and nurturing is important. Because if you’re 15 or 16 years old, it’s hard being away from home for long trips.”
Bates recalls one trip he took with Raducanu to a tournament in India two years ago. “A three-week trip to India is a big commitment for a young player to make,” he says, especially when you’re juggling school and tennis. “You are making sure you’ve got the right support network around players which is incredibly important. It’s not just about the coaching staff and the strength and conditioning staff. It is also about managing education and lifestyle.”
The thing that always struck me with Emma from very early on was just how single-minded she was. She was building her tennis for the future”
Raducanu moved along the LTA pathway, turning pro in 2018, but she didn’t make her debut on the WTA Tour [the elite tour of women’s tennis] until a few weeks before Wimbledon in 2021 – having just completed her A-level exams. One of the hardest parts of breaking through in tennis, believes Bates, is getting out of the bracket of players ranked between 100 and 250. “You’ve got the entire planet trying to do the same thing. And you’re so close,” he says. Despite the four-and-a-half-decade gap between British women’s Grand Slam titles (the last being Virginia Wade’s Wimbledon crown in 1977), Bates believes the sport in the country hasn’t suffered the lean period that is often talked about. Johanna Konta, he points out, has reached three Grand Slam semi-finals and has been in the world’s top five. Jo Durie was ranked fifth in the ’80s. “But winning a Grand Slam is not an easy thing to do,” he says. The barrier, he believes, was that most players hadn’t seen up close how a title is won. It hadn’t become commonplace within the culture of British women’s tennis. “Role models are very important and Emma winning a Slam now provides a role model to others to show what’s possible,” says Bates.
Further down the pyramid Bates hopes Raducanu’s triumph – watched by an audience of 9.2 million in the UK – will prompt more girls to take up tennis. It’s too early to gauge the extent of the “Emma effect”, as Bates calls it, but he has seen some evidence closer to home. “I’ve got a ten-year-old daughter, and she loves tennis because of what I do,” he says. “But my goodness, everything in her life right now is about Emma Raducanu. That’s replicated up and down the country: more young girls are wanting to play tennis. So I do think there’s a huge opportunity.”
At January’s Australian Open, the first Slam of 2022, Raducanu will be treated a little differently – as a contender, rather than an outsider. More Liverpool than Wimbledon. After her US Open win, she rose to 23rd in the world, making her the British number one. Her $2.5 million prize money was eight times her entire career earnings to date. She now faces an intense scrutiny that very few professional sportspeople are put under. In September she gained 1.4 million Instagram followers almost overnight. The press gleefully reported on the potential sponsorship deals Raducanu could sign, openly speculating whether she would be the first “billionaire sportswoman”. Meanwhile she parted company with her coach, Andrew Richardson, and replaced him with German Torben Beltz for her first full season on the WTA Tour.
Bates believes that Raducanu can handle the new challenges, just like she adapted to a new way of winning at the US Open. He is, however, always thinking about what comes next. Are there more Emma Raducanus in the pipeline? If so, those only a few years behind her at London’s National Tennis Centre, known as the National, now have an extra motivation – Raducanu donated her US Open trophy to the LTA. “Having the US Open trophy on display here will be an inspiration for every young player that comes into the National,” says Bates, who hopes that more female British players will break into the top 100 in 2022. “To be able to see it, to touch it: it’s connecting the dream to what people who come through the door here try to do. It’s a wonderful gesture. It’s culture-defining for us.”
Slow Journalism in your inbox, plus infographics, offers and more: sign up for the free DG newsletter. Sign me up
Thanks for signing up.