Aidan Smith: Emma Raducanu - a winning smile but shoulders still too slim for carrying the hopes of a nation
Jane Austen’s Emma was completed at a furious pace, just two months from start to brilliant finish, an incredible burst of creativity by its author resulting in her greatest book and a comedy of manners still much-loved, more than 200 years later.
Ian and Renee’s daughter Emma went from nowhere to nation’s sweetheart in even less time, and you can’t help wondering, after her sad exit from Wimbledon on Monday night, how the Raducanu family might be reflecting on the experience of the 18-year-old being gaspingly acclaimed as Britain’s next great hope in whites.
For, Andy Murray excepted, isn’t this always another kind of comedy of manners? Polite, traditional Wimbledon waits with chaste hope for a new young star to emerge from the locker-rooms. When one does, everyone goes loopy - total bananas. If the star is an attractive girl then she’ll be front page as well as back. The BBC will whip up blockbuster movie titles like she’s a Marvel superhero (Raducanu got this treatment). Gnarled oldies of tennis will pronounce on her talent and, increasingly these days, experts from the dark arts of “brand” will calculate the worth of that big, beaming smile (£3 million, apparently). Then what usually happens is she loses, a nation sighs, and the fans on courtside will unpack their macs and unfurl their umbrellas because by that stage it will invariably be raining.
During the soggy interruptions to yesterday’s programme, there was the fond hope that this Emma will endure but also, much else to ponder after the mad rush to acclaim her.
Raducanu didn’t lose, she had to retire from her round-of-16 match while one set and three-love down. One of those gnarled oldies, John McEnroe, was criticised for suggesting that the tournament, and especially the mammoth expectancy, had “got a little bit too much for her”. But doesn’t he have a point?
It would be surprising indeed if a teenager who’d only just sat her A-levels had not been overawed by the red-hot speed with which Raducanu went from being a world-ranked 338 unknown to Wimbledon’s queen-in-waiting. The poise displayed in her matches to get to Monday fooled us. Her coolness is real enough, but what then happened was that the hype was ramped up to 11. When she next stepped onto the practice court it was like Dua Lipa arriving at an awards ceremony. This would be a week of “England expects” like no other, and Raducanu was sharing top-billing with Harry Kane. Then came the long, long wait to play.
She didn’t serve the first ball in the blithering cauldron of No 1 Court until 7.53pm. Even if she’d had a lie-in that morning, there was still plenty of time to play the whole match in her head, and to get stressed about it, no matter that her coaches would have done their best to obviate this.
Why, though, should she have been given the preferential treatment of an earlier start? There shouldn’t be favouritism for a home player but Raducanu and Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic suffered in comparison with the rest of the fourth round. Ashleigh Barty had been resting up for a full five hours while waiting to find out who she would play next.
Just before 8pm was the perfect time for the BBC to broadcast the match and the perfect time for the All-England Club, too. Wimbledon’s organisers were forced into issuing a statement defending the scheduling, saying they’d tried to be fair to everyone involved - players and, yes, broadcasters - but suggesting they had no control over weather and the duration of preceding matches.
But No 1 has a roof. And Raducanu and Tomljanovic were made to wait for a men’s match which seasoned SW19 observers easily predicted would be a five-set affair. The latest appearance of Wimbledon’s new darling got the prime-time slot that everyone wanted, except perhaps Raducanu herself.
The price of success? And aren’t big football clubs like Liverpool and Manchester City at the mercy of TV’s demands, when no matter that they’ve just returned from a long European expedition, Saturday’s kick-off will be bang on noon?
Yes, but this is one tennis player, and one very young and inexperienced tennis player - just a solitary WTA event to her name before this, her Wimbledon debut. Right from the start against Tomljanovic, with her shots finding the net or thudding the backstop, she struggled to find the sweet groove of her previous performance - but once we’d all calmed down, this can’t have been a surprise to anyone.
Difficult opponent, tougher challenge, through-the-roof amount of anticipation. Even the tennis elite would have to reset for all of that, and Raducanu is not at this level yet.
She battled gamely in the first set before in the second she began clutching her stomach. Reporting on the match I’d remarked that parents of 18-year-olds set for a summer of loafing around in front of Love Island might have hoped Raducanu could act as a role-model. That still applies but the contest’s sad outcome was a reminder that, when all’s said and done and far too much has been said about the player already, she is what she is: 18.
After the match Tomljanovic, ten years older, was asked how she rated Raducanu. “I wasn’t surprised with her level because there have been so many young girls who can hit the ball,” she said. “I’m more impressed when, so early, they can handle the game mentally. I don’t remember what I was like at 18 but I wasn’t doing this. I find that impressive.”
And “doing this” in Britain, carrying the hopes of the nation, striving to prove there could be life after Andy Murray has left the scene - there’s impressive and then there’s Emma Raducanu. “I can’t imagine being in her shoes at 18 playing a fourth round in your country,” said Tomljanovic. And she repeated: “I can’t even imagine … ”
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