Emma Raducanu can save tennis

8 September 2021

12:40 AM

8 September 2021

12:40 AM

Something perfect at the death of summer: Emma Raducanu in full flight, smoking winners up the lines and progressing without dropping a set into the last eight of the US Open at the improbable age of 18. The very best, in tennis as in all sports, almost without exception, make it look beautiful – it’s why we can’t take our eyes off them (because beauty is an element-bending superpower).

Raducanu makes playing tennis look beautiful. As she waits to receive serve, poised and utterly focused, it can appear as if she has arrived on court straight from the pages of a fashion magazine. There is an unmistakeable Hollywood quality, too, to the manner in which she is now realising her potential at Flushing Meadows, having flashed into the sport-watching world’s consciousness at Wimbledon.

The way Raducanu moves is breathtaking – her athleticism and coordination, apparent in everything she does — is mesmerising and flawless. To put it bluntly, so far she has made the young women on the other side of the net – elite athletes positioned high up their sport’s vertiginous ranking pyramid – look lumbering and slow-witted. Her last two opponents, in fact, simply imploded when they realised the elemental force they were up against. Both were ranked in the top 50. Raducanu demolished them.

Tennis is crying out for new stars. The men’s game has become stultifying as a result of the strange and seemingly never-ending longevity of its dominant three greats. Roger Federer (40) has been going for more than two decades, and Rafa Nadal (35) and Novak Djokovic (34) not much less. They made many tournaments thrilling, but in recent years their hold seems to have throttled the development of the elite men’s game.

In previous eras, the game would be kept fresh by higher turnover at the top – Andre Agassi, for example, won his last Grand Slam at 32, Pete Sampras at 31, Ivan Lendl at 29 and John McEnroe at 25.

The problem is worse in the women’s game, which has had all life squeezed from it by the near-total dominance of the Williams sisters. Serena (39) was most dominant of all, the most successful player in the Open era. Over the course of a professional career that began in 1995, she has amassed 39 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles (her sister Venus (41) has 23). But she has not enjoyed a great rivalry on a par with Federer vs Nadal.

Enter Raducanu. Perhaps the most thrilling aspect of watching her play is the realisation that nobody yet knows of what she is capable or where her limits lie, including her. At Wimbledon she was only beaten by herself – she withdrew from her fourth round match against Ajla Tomljanovic because she couldn’t control her breathing and felt dizzy, not because she was being outplayed. For my money, she looked the better player that day. Only two months on, she seems much better equipped to handle the inevitable big-game nerves.

On Wednesday, Raducanu, who speaks Mandarin, will face Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic, priced at five to one for the tournament. Losing against such a strong opponent would certainly hold no shame, but should she win, and by doing so book a place in the semi finals, her star would rise meteorically, and globally. She would be on course to become one of the biggest sports stars in the world. She’s exactly what tennis, and even British sport, needs.

Go on, Emma. To the semis, and beyond.

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