British teenager Emma Raducanu’s straight set victory (6-1, 6-2) at the US Open last night was exciting. Exciting for all the reasons we love to watch tennis; the thrill of the underdog triumph, the inevitable comparisons with other, prodigal, teenage stars like Becker, and of course, the very fact of her Britishness. In this, our Brexit era, Raducanu took her best to the world stage and outperformed all expectations. Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win the title at Flushing Meadows in 1968 and grand dowager of the British women’s game, rose to her feet in the stands applauding the guts of the 18-year old as she won 12 of the final 13 games to send American Shelby Rogers packing in just over an hour. Not bad for a wild-card contestant, only the third qualifier to reach the US Open quarterfinals in the Open era. Not bad at all.
These are the facts of her victory and they are impressive. But tennis, although fought out over the impitoyable geometries of the court, is about so much more than facts. It is about the far messier, altogether unkempt business of ambition. Tennis players, for the most part, funnel this ambition into blinding baseline returns, delicate volleys, and elegant cross-court winners. Sometimes, this ambition cannot be contained so deftly. We have seen a great deal of this in the past year; Naomi Osaka withdrawing from the French Open citing her mental health, Djokovic's temper on the SW19 grass as he lost a set on his way to the title, Serena Williams bellowing about her daughter as the umpire looked on bemused. The steely ambition that it takes to win a match alone, in front of thousands, can burst forth from the edges of its Nike outfit and prove to be far less palatable.
At just 18, Raducanu has amply shown her ambition, dealing with it in a manner that other players on the tour might wish to note. On winning, she posed for selfies with the crowd and later graciously thanked Wade for watching her match. This being the age of 24-hour rolling sport on social media, the blue bird of Twitter was practically forced into aviary collapse by the outpouring of support for this fledgling star. Everyone loves a winner, of course, but there is something particularly beguiling about the cusp upon which Raducanu sits. As she straddles the ordinary world of A-Level results and leaving school she still belongs to the crowd, the Icarus-like flight into the mega-deals of brand sponsorship and the shadowy sheen of social media some way ahead. Watch Osaka as she began her career and you will see the same optimism. The very same disbelief at her success, the joy of the game before it all became too much.
When Boris Becker first lifted the Wimbledon trophy atop his blonde mop in 1985 aged just 17, his young face wasn’t trained to disguise his elation. Here was a sportsman (or boy, rather) who gave us a vision of tennis victory as amazing, fact-defying, against all odds. Fast-forward some thirty years and grand slam winners look jaded. Djokovic, by now so used to the post-match victorious interview that he cracks one-liners and has his routine down pat, simply can’t give us the same sense of awe. Even Federer, the most courteous of winners, always apparently chasing yet another title, always, we are assured, desperate to win, simply can’t convince us that it means that much. He has the millions, the Rolex, the Federer Foundation; what’s another win?
Emma Raducanu gives me faith that players still want to win tournaments, that the graft of practising tennis every day for your entire adolescence and early adulthood, with an overbearing father-coach and no life, is worth it. In the furore of concern over athletes’ mental health – worthy of concern thought it is – we have lost the nail-biting, unadulterated excitement that only young players can convey to us. Of course, all the great and the good of British tennis have weighed in since her win last night: Andy Murray, Tim Henman. But for all their tweets, predictions, and votes of support, they cannot communicate what it is that we really want to hear, namely, that in the match of disillusion vs. belief, Raducanu has won.