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Thursday, September 16, 2021

Emma Raducanu is the stress-free sports star this country needs (and she doesn’t grunt!)

Jane Austen famously declared that her Emma Wodehouse was “perfect despite her faults”. Well, Emma Raducanu is perfect and no double faults. Or none at the thrilling final of the US Open anyway. Best of all, the girl is not a grunter. What a relief to be spared those baying childbirth moans as another ball is hoisted effortfully over the net. The only expression of emotion that the 18-year-old from Bromley permits herself is a satisfied little exhalation of breath – like a child blowing out birthday candles – on her fingers when she has pulled off another cross-court zinger. (Job done!) Or, more sparingly, an emphatic “C’mon!” with an elegantly raised fist after punishing her opponent’s perfectly good serve with an Exocet return. Even Raducanu’s defensive shots are offensive.

The player she most resembles is Roger Federer. With their cat-like composure and brown, leaf-shaped eyes, both are possessed of a supreme grace and serenity which masks their killer aggression.

Virginia Wade, the last British woman to win the US Open, got it right on Saturday night when she said  “It’s not that nerve-wracking watching Emma because she’s so in control.” For tennis fans in this country this is a novel sensation; not having to cling on by our fingertips to a rollercoaster of ecstatic highs and plummeting lows as our male or female bag-of-nerves throws away the match. The only person who can defeat Emma Raducanu is herself.

You know what; I think we could get to like having a champion who doesn’t put us through the mill. I loved the look of stunned delight on Tim Henman’s face – like any great talent, Emma’s makes you laugh in disbelief. There was one half-volley she took so early that neither Leylah Fernandez nor the cameraman saw it.

“Youth is more brave,” said Martina Navratilova admiringly from the commentary box. And beautiful too. Watching Emma strike the ball with a rapturous freedom and intensity makes you want to be 18 again.  

“Blimey, get her to take a penalty for England next time,” said Himself, “Emma wouldn’t miss.”  

“Nearly as good as the men’s,” joked a friend. Male, obviously. But he had a point. It was one of the most exhilarating games of tennis I’ve ever seen.

Certain commentators on the left tried to make a thing of Emma’s background (her Romanian father and Chinese mother) to attack this country for its supposed anti-immigrant feeling. They failed. The smiley girl waving the Union Jack, lit from within with pride and joy, could not be more British. The place she earned at a highly selective grammar school; her parents working in financial services to support their only child; their three-bedroom semi; Emma pausing briefly from swinging a racquet to take an A* and an A in A-level maths and economics before storming one of the greatest prizes in her sport; is a case study in drive and aspiration. Her parents, she admitted afterwards, are her toughest critics, “They’re hard to please, but I got them this time.”

You did, darling girl. You got all of us.

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