Most fledging British stars spend years trying to crack America. Emma Raducanu did it in three giddy weeks. And such was the skill and breathtaking scale of her first grand slam victory – which ended with her blitzing an ace before collapsing to the floor and rubbing her eyes, as if to make sure she was not in some impossible dream – it felt entirely natural to immediately speculate where it ranked in the pantheon of the nation’s great sporting triumphs.
High, for sure. Perhaps even highest of all. Certainly for an individual.
After all, never in tennis history has anyone fought through three qualifying rounds of a grand slam before winning the entire tournament, let alone an 18-year-old who the bookies rated as a 400-1 outsider. What’s more, she did it without dropping a set. If a young writer dared pitch such a script to Hollywood, it would have been fastballed into the nearest trashcan.
Yet it was all true. The $2.5m (£1.8m) cheque. The praise from legends such as Martina Navratilova. The peak TV audience of 9.2 million Britons willing her on to her 6-4 6-3 victory over the Canadian Leylah Fernandez. Even a rare message from the Queen, one ER congratulating another.
“I don’t feel any pressure,” Raducanu said afterwards, with a conviction that was as startling as her tennis. “I’m still only 18 years old. I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way.”
Later, with an ease that comes naturally to her, she joked that her first goal at the US Open had been to earn enough money to replace her lost Airpods.
Now, though, her sights are being sharply recalibrated. The PR guru Mark Borkowski, who has worked with Michael Jackson, Joan Rivers and Led Zeppelin, among others, reckoned that Raducanu has the talent and charisma to potentially become Britain’s first billion-dollar sport star.
“This is the start of something epic,” he said. “She is a billion-dollar girl, no doubt about it. She is the real deal. It’s not just that she plays extraordinary tennis, it’s also her background, her ethnicity, her freedom of spirit. People also love the fact that she is vulnerable, but laughs the pressures away.”
Such number-plucking exercises can not be entirely dismissed. Forbes recently noted that another tennis player, Naomi Osaka, the world’s highest paid female athlete, made $60m in 2020, $55m of which came from more than 20 corporate sponsors, including Google and Louis Vuitton. Raducanu has Max Eisenbud, who guided Maria Sharapova’s career, in her corner too.
And the fact that Raducanu, who was born in Canada to parents from Romania and China, can speak Mandarin will not hurt either. After her victory in New York, she used her second language when speaking to the US Open official Weibo site to thank the Chinese public for their support.
Remarkably – an adjective that is used frequently around Raducanu – it is only three months since she made her WTA Tour debut at the Nottingham Open in June, losing to another British player, Harriet Dart, in the first round.
It is also barely two months since she was forced to retire with breathing difficulties during a fourth-round match at Wimbledon. Afterwards, a succession of middle-aged men, including the TV presenter Piers Morgan, took a perverse delight in suggesting she couldn’t cut it.
How she proved them wrong.
“Nobody does it this fast, this well,” said Navratilova after watching Raducanu on Saturday night. “Her rise has been beyond meteoric. I have never seen it before, that is the truth.” And while it has been a stunning year for British sport, with Team GB matching its London 2012 Olympic tally of medals and England reaching the Euro 2020 final, nothing compares to Raducanu. No wonder she is an overwhelming 20-1 on favourite with the bookies to lift the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year award. Even those odds don’t look ridiculous. She would have to shoot Bambi not to win.
Her emergence also comes at the perfect time for the sport. With Roger Federer and Serena Williams turning 40 this year and Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in their mid-30s, tennis needs fresh heroes. And in Raducanu, a student bright enough to gain an A* in A-level maths and an A in economics but normal enough to appeal to almost everyone, it has the perfect candidate.
Unsurprisingly, the Lawn Tennis Association is already noticing anecdotal signs of the “Raducanu effect”, with more young girls asking for tennis lessons, although an LTA source said it was too early to attach numbers yet.
But as Matt James, an LTA coach who was assigned to Raducanu full time from 15 to 17, puts it: “I think she will inspire a lot of people, and especially young girls. She has such a great attitude. She’s going out and saying, ‘I’m just going to enjoy the experience.’ But at the same time she is a fierce competitor who can be composed under enormous pressure.”
Another measure of Raducanu’s burgeoning popularity with young audiences came over the weekend as she doubled her number of Instagram followers to 1.4 million in less than 48 hours. Charlie Beall of the digital consultants Seven League – whose clients include the NBA and Barcelona and which is part of Raducanu’s management group IMG – noticed something else in the data too.
“In the last week she has had an Instagram interaction rate of 38%, which is extraordinary,” he said. “Essentially, it is the percentage of people who like, share, or view your content and shows how engaged your audiences are. To put it into context, most brands would be delighted with 1%.”
Such engagement, Beall believes, is not only down to Raducanu’s success on the court. “Young people are interested in people that are like them,” he said. “She’s 18 years old and she’s digitally native, having grown up with messaging apps and social media platform channels, so it feels intuitive to her.
“And digital audiences are savvy. They will ignore ads and ignore content that doesn’t appeal to them. So a high interaction rate on social media is the gold standard for potential sponsors.”
And as far as Raducanu is concerned, this is just the start, according to the prediction of the former British number one Tim Henman: “She is going to win more of these. This is not some flash-in-the-pan fairy tale. She is playing top-five tennis right now. It is going to be one hell of a ride.” Time to buckle up.