Sportswomen of the year: Emma Raducanu’s special feat will serve as an inspiring wake-up call for tennis


While I never won a Grand Slam, when I look back on my own tennis career – reaching British no1, and at 17 the youngest ever player to make the Fed Cup team – I can’t help but think it was bloody crazy, too. Where we came from, people didn’t have tennis careers. Despite the obstacles, my parents changed that. Four of us kids, growing up on a housing estate in a cramped flat in Hackney, playing on the park courts at Hackney Downs, the sacrifices and dedication from my mum and dad was unreal. I was a child who relied and benefited from free school meals.

My parents were the driving force behind it all, my dad an immigrant from Laos, my mum a refugee. The one thing they always stressed to us was, “We’re doing this because we want you to have a better life than us. If you’re good at tennis, it will give you opportunities.”

But breaking into the sport, even at junior level – and still now – requires money. My dad worked night shifts, my mum brought in extra cash as a machinist sewing clothes in the garment factories. The money they earned went towards paying for my tennis squads.

Instead of summer holidays we went to tennis tournaments – I was taking part before I even knew how to score. In those days there was prize money to be won, and that would go back to mum and dad to help pay for the petrol, or my entry fee for the next event. Learning how to compete and finding a way to win from a young age helped accelerate my understanding of the sport. Some tournaments offered sportswear as prizes, and before long my whole family were kitted out in Adidas tennis shoes, or jumpers if you were the runner up.

I remember one coach questioning why I was playing all these competitions, and not having the courage to say, “Well, actually, we need the cash to fund everything.” It took every penny my parents had, and help from family members as well, to keep my tennis going. I joke with my dad now that he was such a pushy parent, but who knows where I would have got to without him.  

Because of that I was always very aware of money. In my role as Billie Jean King Cup captain I say to the British players now, “don’t take it for granted”. It is a blessing to have so much more financial support available, but there is a danger of creating a culture of entitlement, and I think there needs to be more accountability from the players. They’ve got to respect it, not expect it. That’s one thing I stress to the team: you guys don’t realise how lucky you are. Don’t moan. Work hard and opportunities will come.

For some of the British players, Emma’s success is difficult to process. They have practised with her, they have beaten her, to think that she’s gone and won a Grand Slam is tough. It’s the goal that they have worked so hard for from a young age. They are happy for her, of course, but it’s a huge wake-up call – inspiring, but not easy. Along with Emma, British tennis is way more diverse than it ever used to be. It is a world away from what I experienced growing up in the 90s. I was always aware of not fitting in. Whether it was my mum’s broken English, our financial situation, or my skin colour, the other girls were different to me.

As Emma came through the juniors I often wondered what it meant to her to see someone with a skin tone like me. It is something I never experienced. Now she will be that beacon for others. I think about that for my daughter and my son, that they can identify with a British player of Asian heritage, who looks like them. Tennis should not be a white middle class sport, and Emma’s success sums that up beautifully.


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