Emma Raducanu lives to play one more day at Wimbledon

Britain’s Emma Raducanu celebrates beating Belgium’s Alison van Uytvanck to win a first-round women’s singles match on day one of the Wimbledon tennis championships in London on June 27.Kirsty Wigglesworth/The Associated Press

Despite all the hoopla, Emma Raducanu’s first arrival on Center Court on Monday afternoon took everyone by surprise.

It had been that kind of day to kick off this year’s Wimbledon. She rained for most of the afternoon, which meant everything was running late. The matches continued indoors on the big court, but the starter, Novak Djokovic, faced someone who had not received the note. South Korea’s Kwon Soon-woo played like he expected to win. If you turned your head like that, for a moment it seemed like he could do it.

By the time Djokovic controlled Kwon, three hours had passed and the crowd needed relief. When Raducanu walked out onto Center Court 10 minutes later, there were more people in line for the toilet than in the stands.

Sensing the wobbly nature of his entrance, the others jumped up to give him a standing ovation. Raducanu waved his hand at them absently.

This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on something that’s hard to predict, like scheduling live outdoor events or tennis races.

Raducanu, who won a surprise US Open last fall and then swims since, plays like someone who feels all eyes in the room are on her. Between points, she walks away to the far wall to have a little chat with herself. During breaks, she stares straight ahead as she inhales and exhales hard enough to start a fire. You just know that this is a person who has really gotten into meditation, and not for fun.

Who could blame her? Right now, there may not be a young athlete on Earth who feels more pressure to perform in a particular place.

Raducanu won on Monday because he had to, right? Which is not to say that he won with much enthusiasm. He wore down Belgian striker Alison Van Uytvanck 6-4, 6-4.

How was that first hour? To say that the first set was played at a snail’s pace would be a slur against the snails. It’s one thing to play pompous tennis. Another is to do it on a cool evening at a place that serves champagne for breakfast. You could see heads around you in the stands nodding.

But having been through that set-long crucible of boredom, Raducanu perked up in the second. The crowd had returned and the air was lighter. So Van Uytvanck did the good neighbor thing and gave up.

Afterwards, Raducanu was more than pleased. She positively glowed. She celebrated as if she had won something that mattered, which I guess she had.

“I felt the support the moment I walked out those doors,” Raducanu said, though he hadn’t really felt it.

“Thank you to everyone who has been here supporting…” he said, though that wasn’t quite right either, as he only made a medium dent in this tournament last year.

“… through the hard part too.”

Well that’s right.

Since winning the US Open, Raducanu’s career has split into two streams.

First, there is your personal brand. That is rated AAA by multinationals everywhere. Raducanu is that unicorn in sports marketing: an athlete who looks like he was designed on a computer, talks like he’s a normal human being, and gets emotional like your new best friend. Regardless of how tennis turns out, he’ll make a fortune selling stuff while she’s willing to crawl onto a court, and probably long after.

Then there is tennis. That hasn’t gone so well. Bad injuries and false starts to recovery have blighted the last nine months. After the worst was over on Monday, Raducanu compared it to his gap year (only, I guess, more painful and more profitable).

This sudden rise and fall is almost directly paralleled by Canadian 2019 US Open winner Bianca Andreescu. Andreescu also introduced himself to people by winning a major and immediately fell into a morass of injuries.

The biggest difference between the two stories is that in Canada we are willing to wait for our tennis stars. In this country, not so much. The British chips have spent weeks playing Raducanu’s Wimbledon, only their second, as if it were their last chance to win this.

A national injury alert was put in place after he withdrew from his only match in his only warm-up tournament three weeks ago. On Saturday everything was announced clear.

It is unclear whether Raducanu is fit to play here or “fit” to play here. But she is playing, albeit slowly.

“I’m looking forward to going out there and playing in front of you guys again,” Raducanu said afterwards.

Perhaps the “hopefully” is a verbal tic. Or maybe she actually meant it as it read.

This is the unbearable heaviness of being British (and good at tennis and playing at Wimbledon). It’s an unfair question, until you consider the rewards that are offered for success. Earn here, no matter how young you are, and you can hire someone to write your obituary now. Unless things go horribly wrong, the first few paragraphs won’t change much.

What surprises you is how much Raducanu seems to enjoy interacting with a crowd, but not while playing. All professionals find their zone, but few need to work that hard to stay in it. He speaks to a young person who feels acutely, perhaps too keenly, what is at stake.

“I’m going to play like a kid who loves to play tennis,” Raducanu said over the weekend. she didn’t. She played more like someone trying to chip a racket handle.

But a victory means there will be no disaster. If he loses now, he can blame his fitness, which would be more of an explanation than an excuse. The important thing is that he cemented a positive memory on the most recognizable surface in tennis.

So, having done the bare minimum, Raducanu sounded less like a PR star and more like what she is: a teenager of remarkable self-control trying to figure out how to be famous.

His voice shook just a little and just once, when he told the crowd, “I’m so happy to stay another day.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.