Despite all the hype, Emma Raducanu’s first-ever arrival on Centre Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.
It had been that sort of day to start this year’s Wimbledon. It rained for most of the early afternoon which meant everything was running late. Matches continued under the roof at the big court, but the opener, Novak Djokovic, found himself up against someone who hadn’t gotten the memo. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head just so, it seemed for a moment like he could.
By the time Djokovic got Kwon under control, three hours had passed and the crowd was in need of relief. When Raducanu emerged onto Centre Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilets than there were in the stands.
Sensing the shambling nature of her entrance, the remainers leapt up to give her a standing ovation. Raducanu waved her hand at them distractedly.
This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s difficult to predict, like the scheduling of live outdoor events or tennis careers.
Raducanu, who won a surprise U.S. Open last fall and then nothing since, plays like someone who feels every eye in the place on her. Between points, she wanders off to the back wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares ahead blankly while breathing in and out hard enough to light a fire. You just know this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.
Who could blame her? Right now, there may be no young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in one particular place.
Raducanu won on Monday because she sort of had to, didn’t she? Which is not to say that she won with much elan. She wore down Belgian puncher Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.
What was it like that first hour? To say the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a calumny on snails. It’s one thing to play turgid tennis. It’s another to do it on a cool late afternoon at a place where they serve champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.
But having gone through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd was back and the air was lighter. Then Van Uytvanck did the neighbourly thing and gave up.
Afterward, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated like she’d won something that mattered, which I guess she had.
“I felt the support the minute I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though she hadn’t really.
“Thank you to everyone who’s been here supporting …” she said, though that wasn’t totally correct either, since she made only a medium-sized dent in this tournament last year.
“ … through the tough part as well.”
Well, that is right.
Since winning the U.S. Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.
First, there is her personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing – an athlete who looks like they were designed in a computer, talks like they are a normal human and emotes like your new best friend. However the tennis turns out, she will make a fortune selling things for as long as she is willing to drag herself onto a court, and probably long after.
Then there’s the tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Pernicious injuries and false recovery starts have blighted the past nine months. After the worst of it was over on Monday, Raducanu likened it to her gap year (only, I suppose, more painful and more profitable).
This sudden rise and fall has an almost direct parallel with Canadian 2019 U.S. Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced herself to people by winning a major and also immediately fell into a thicket of injuries.
The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada, we’re willing to wait on our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British tabs have spent weeks playing up Raducanu’s Wimbledon – only her second – like it’s her last chance to win this thing.
A national injury watch was launched after she bailed out of her only match at her only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. The all-clear was announced on Saturday.
It’s not clear if Raducanu’s fit to play here, or ‘fit’ to play here. But she’s playing, however slowly.
“Looking forward to hopefully coming out and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterward.
Maybe the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it like it reads.
This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It is an unfair ask, until you consider the rewards being dangled for success. Win here, however young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go very wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.
What you are struck by is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while she’s playing. Every pro finds her zone, but few need to visibly grind so hard to stay in it. It speaks to a young person who senses keenly – maybe too keenly – what’s at stake.
“I’m going to play like a kid who just loves playing tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. She didn’t. She played more like someone trying to squeeze the racket handle to splinters.
But one win means there will be no disaster. If she loses now, she can blame her fitness – which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that she cemented one positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.
So having done the minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a star doing PR and more like what she is – a teenager of remarkable self-possession trying to figure out how to be famous.
Her voice trembled only a little and only once, when she told the crowd, “I’m just so happy to stay another day.”