Emma Raducanu aced her final exam.
The young Brit came into the 2021 US Open only weeks removed from Newstead Wood School in Orpington, on the outskirts of London, and acing her A-levels, the exams that Brits take before entering university.
The 18-year-old was ranked No. 150 in the world and embarking on a celebrated summer adventure that would take her to San Jose, Chicago and New York, where she would play just her second career major.
“My time has gone so quickly here in the States. I’ve been here for over six weeks now. It’s by far the longest trip I’ve ever done,” said Raducanu. “The time’s flown by.”
Once she alighted in Queens, Raducanu had to survive three rounds of qualifiers to get into the main draw. Okay, no problem.
Then she had to beat three far more experienced veterans, all ranked in the Top 50. She sailed through.
Raducanu pummeled Shelby Rogers, the American who had expelled the tournament’s top seed, Ashleigh Barty, in the previous round. She faced her first Top 20 player, 11th seed Belinda Bencic—the Olympic gold medalist in singles in Tokyo—in the quarterfinals. Surely that would be an obstacle.
Nope. 6-3, 6-4.
Though only weeks earlier she was still a schoolgirl, Raducanu was the one doling out lessons on her new campus in Flushing Meadows. In the semis, Raducanu trounced French Open semifinalist Maria Sakkari from Greece, who’d been playing some of the best, most aggressive ball on the women’s side.
The first qualifier in history to reach a major final, man or woman, Raducanu didn’t lose a set and surrendered just 34 games in seven rounds. Since the star student in math and economics says she likes numbers, that’s 2.43 games lost per set, 4.85 games per match.
Lo and behold, Raducanu the qualifier won it all, defeating her fellow teen Leylah Fernandez, 6-4, 6-3, topping it all off with an ace on match point. The former ingenue is the 2021 US Open champion. Or should that be valedictorian?
She rolled through a total of 10 rounds of the US Open, counting qualifiers, schooling opponents left and right.
It’s as if Raducanu entered as a freshman, skipped several grades and went straight to being awarded her Ph.D. at Oxford—all in a matter of three weeks. In her first appearance on Arthur Ashe Stadium, the youngster put on a clinic.
Despite all that, Raducanu is an unlikely prodigy.
Ordinarily the tennis industry identifies kids at an early age and grooms them for greatness. They get endorsements and press interest, and expectations are heaped on them.
Raducanu, in contrast, came out of nowhere. She received a wild card to enter her home Slam, Wimbledon, ranked No. 338.
Perhaps Raducanu was able to fly under the radar not because she lacked talent, but because her parents, two London financiers, insisted that she concentrate first on her education and worry about tennis later. With classes and the pandemic, she basically didn’t compete for 18 months.
“Having a Chinese mom, she definitely instilled from a young age hard work, discipline,” said the youngster.
“I always have my education as a backup,” Raducanu said. “I was doing it alongside my tennis. I had options. I still do. But obviously I’m a hundred percent in my tennis now.”
Even as her star began to shine brightly in New York, Raducanu downplayed expectations going into the women’s final. “I mean, is there any expectation? I’m a qualifier, so technically on paper there’s no pressure on me,” she said with a smile.
Raducanu, though, certainly had her own expectations. “Emma is a perfectionist and won’t be happy with an A. It has to be an A-plus,” Matt James, one of her coaches, told The Sun.
Her game is methodical and airtight. It bespeaks years of preparation, analysis and execution.
Before her final exam in Flushing, Raducanu said, “Right now I’m just thinking of the game plan, how to execute. That’s what’s landed me in this situation.”
All tournament long, Raducanu stunned her opponents with how polished and posh her tennis was. She wasn’t just a fresh-faced debutante and picture of youthful enthusiasm. The Brit’s strokes are textbook, her technique unimpeachable. It is obvious she completely absorbed and replicated her tennis lessons. There’s very little to correct as she moves forward. Service technique? No flaws. Forehand and backhand? A+. Movement? Excellent. Court sense? Surprisingly seasoned.
Now Raducanu has to learn to deal with the day-to-day grind of the tour, the pressure of megawatt endorsement contracts and media coverage, and how to respond when her tennis inevitably isn’t going as swimmingly as it did in New York.
But Raducanu has shown she is a quick study.
Source: Neil Schlecht