There is a temptation to wince just a little each time a news item or a social media line drops containing the words Emma Raducanu. Not because of anything to do with Raducanu herself, who will shortly hit the one-year anniversary of her entry into the full women’s tour, during which she has been not just startlingly successful but gracious in defeat and polished in public, rattling through the chaos, the bruises, the wrong turns of a debut teenage year in professional sport. She looks happy. This is all good, isn’t it?
And yet, of course, that’s not the whole story. Raducanu was in the news for two reasons this week. First her exit from the Madrid Open, beaten by Anhelina Kalinina in the third round. And second for her appearance in something called the Forbes 30 Under 30 List, the kind of self-generating media gush that allows people to produce titillating web galleries of glossy, aspirational people, but also gives an idea of brand value, marketing heft, career trajectory.
Raducanu is in there, along with Mo Salah – who is 30 next month and already worth $90m – plus an endless scroll of people who look like kind of high-end London estate agents who say things like “amassing over four thousand square feet” but who turn out on closer inspection to be start-up whizzes, influencer types, hit-the-jackpot investors and the like.
Forbes is a weird publication, a kind of airport lounge lifestyle jazz mag. But it makes a good list. And as ever, with Raducanu as the headline name, this one drew the usual spume of online snark, rage and counter-rage. This is just the way it seems to work. Raducanu triggers people, and triggers them in curious ways. Throughout the last year she has been trailed by a weirdly personal strain of negativity, by haters where really there is no need for haters. Her losses have been crowed and high-fived over, injuries met with disbelieving sneers.
Does this matter? Raducanu is doing very well. She doesn’t need anyone to speak for her. Even writing about this stuff is more fuel to the furnace. But there is a harder point here.
We are at the start of period when this process is likely to hit fever pitch. The next few weeks will take her on to Roland Garros and then into the high summer bloom of the grass season, with a Wimbledon fortnight unobscured by the Fifa World Cup, and all set to go doolally in that familiar and admittedly very annoying way over its new star.
She will now be thoroughly over-exposed. The matches in SW19 will become lager-hurling outdoor events, the victories a source of bell-ringing BBC joy, defeats a line on the News at Ten (the sobbing face-painted child, the baleful wave to a flushed centre court). Reporters will sniff hungrily for back story bits and boyfriend gold. Chin-stroking opinion articles will be penned (again) on the meaning of Raducanu, her signifiers, her resonance in the cultural farrago of a post-Brexit, post-imperial, post-basically-everything Britain. Boots will sell out of scrunchies. A TV pundit will make an inappropriate remark. Commercial sponsors will goggle and drool.
And all the while in the background the wave of online rage will reach an answering peak. Just click on any online Raducanu story. There is a certain voice to this, the voice of angry anonymity. To Dave from Egham Raducanu represents fluff, spin, hype. The US Open win was a lucky run, something that is now being shamelessly monetised, thereby stealing attention, space and legitimacy from real sport, real heroes, real men. Dave from Egham sees a woke hero. Dave from Egham sees only decline, dissipated power, others succeeding unjustly.
Where does this come from? The reaction to John McEnroe’s comment about Raducanu needing to toughen up after last year’s Wimbledon exit was a little overblown. But this was then seized on with vampiric glee by Piers Morgan, whose success as a polemicist is based in stapling himself to each passing issue, personage or hot topic and becoming a fanfare for the most perverse and provocative version, thereby stealing a tint little hit of its noise and heat; in a way that is probably quite addictive if you can bear doing that to yourself. In this way a thought some people might have in the dark, the idea that a successful young women must be reined in, exposed, denied the right to be sponsored by Porsche, to rake it in, is made flesh and legitimised.
This creates referred pain. There is already a problem with encouraging girls and women to play sport, with treating them with respect when they do. These are issues of health and happiness and wellbeing, the whole point of doing this stuff, the best part of it, and that well of bile is corrosive.
Beyond this it is just such a waste, because Raducanu is a genuinely interesting athlete. Her success is an outsider success; home made, self-taught, and a model for anyone who watches or plays or coaches sport. Right now she is the only teenager in the top 15 in the world. She doesn’t have obvious physical advantages. She doesn’t hit exceptionally hard. She will have days where she is simply pulverised by some vast shrieking gym monster with a pterodactyl’s wingspan.
She is essentially trying to learn tennis while playing tennis. A few weeks back she lost to Danka Kovinic at the Australian Open while playing with a blister that made it hard to hold her racket. Faced with this Raducanu started improvising, playing sliced backhands, hanging in there, finding new angles. Raducanu is working this out herself. This is her super strength, a very bright mind, an awareness of her capacities, and a basic fearlessness.
And two things stand out at this stage. Raducanu may never win another slam, but her achievements are already exceptional; at the same time in the year since New York she has at no stage responded to the pressure being placed on her, showing instead remarkable poise. The self-possession will be tested a little more from here. The summer of Emma is nearly upon us. Can we just let her play?