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Emma Raducanu, the new Queen of Wimbledon, looks determined to enjoy the show

The i 6/27/2022 Kevin Garside

Emma Raducanu is sat behind a table signing posters. Before her a small huddle of reporters. The chair on which she is seated might be a throne, she the new queen of Wimbledon and we her subjects. To her right an aide directing the questioning, like a Walsingham or Cecil fussing about Elizabeth I.

She had just come from the main media centre, the auditorium packed with journalists eager to hear the thoughts of the tournament’s female lead. A year ago she arrived as a little known sixth-former straight from the A-level examination hall. As she prepares to make her Centre Court debut on Monday against Alison Van Uytvanck she does so as the face of the tournament, the star of the show, her wholesome, pristine presence set off by Tiffany pearls and snow-white Nike top.

She is both vulnerable and remarkably self-assured, a novice whilst also a grand slam champion. These existential extremes entrap her in a way that does not seem fair. Inviting a 19-year-old to bear the weight of the SW19 ball, to wear the queen’s robes is an obvious cruelty since these are obligations entirely outside her experience. Imagine your daughter back from her fresher’s year, answerable for the family business armed with an A-level in maths, albeit an A*. You would not put her through that.

About the starring role Raducanu is learning on the job, like a princeling suddenly empowered by the death of the monarch. Ask her anything about tennis, her opponents, shot-making, form, preparation, fitness, the answers come back with authority. Ask her what it all means, how it feels to be loved by all, to be the focus of attention, to be the major story on the world’s most celebrated tennis stage having never set foot on Centre Court, and she is groping around the baseline for answers; a little ill at ease, a little nervous, a little unsure. As she would be.

A huge picture of Raducanu promoting her latest sponsor, HSBC, adorns Wimbledon station. She is the star of Vodafone’s new summer campaign. Some would have the commercial accoutrements as distractions. Indeed, Nike spun their own take on that riff in January with its “World Off, Game On” campaign, the detractors being the distracted, while she did the achieving. Just do it, right?

The entirely reasonable question of how she deals with this transformational stuff, the immense publicity and its consequences, resulted in an interesting answer. “I think it is pretty surreal to have my face there [Wimbledon station]. It’s a bit unrecognisable, like that can’t be me. But I’m obviously very lucky to be working with some amazing partners. I think that everything that I’ve been doing with them has been very positive because I feel like I’ve learnt a lot from them, just seeing the way they go about things. And although I am a tennis player, there’s so much more to life, and I think that I learn and can apply those areas of business and how they approach their work with utmost standards to my tennis as well. So yeah, broadening all sorts of knowledge.”

What she is in fact experiencing is a crash course in how the world works, about power, influence, commerce, value, and how she connects to the rapidly evolving eco system surrounding her. A year ago she was answering economics questions on an A-level paper. Today she is dealing with tens of millions of pounds on her own account. At 19. The tennis is the easy bit. And last year’s anonymity made it that much more straightforward.

“I don’t think I did any real media days. I was just training. I was definitely experiencing some nerves and uneasiness. I felt like it was a very new experience. But I was feeling very confident because I had a great week of practice, hitting with some top players. I managed to hit with Garbine [Muguruza] and that gave me a lot of confidence. I was just looking forward to it, relieved that my exams were over,” she said.

In terms of preparation she arrives this year similarly compromised, if for different reasons. “It’s funny because the exams, I was studying nine or 10 hours a day. I had my head in a book. And coming out is just such a relief to be moving, full stop. The last month I haven’t had necessarily the best preparation, I didn’t play tennis for two and a half weeks, I was taking it day by day. So in that regard I feel like I shouldn’t have any expectations on myself. Other opponents have been playing a few matches each week, learning, getting a bit better on grass. I’m just like rocking up here this week basically. But I’m feeling good, I feel like I’ve been playing well and I’m looking forward to playing on Centre Court.”

Since her victory in New York, injury has stolen Raducanu’s momentum. She fell at the second round in each of this year’s grand slams in Australia and Paris. A side strain forced her most recent withdrawal at the Nottingham Open, her third since the US Open, putting her appearance at Wimbledon in doubt. Judy Murray, remarked how her son Andy endured similar physical difficulties early in his career and counselled tolerance towards a young woman whose body is still maturing and adjusting to the rigours of the professional tour. Though that might not satisfy the John McEnroes of this precinct, who saw in her retirement in the fourth round a year ago a lack of nerve more than fitness, it seems reasonable to more sensitive ears.

After coming through her session on Saturday, Raducanu maintains she is ready to go. Centre Court awaits its new darling. “Last year I was so new to it, so I wasn’t even thinking of anything. This year I’m taking it all as a positive thing. Everyone wants me to do well and is behind me, [those] who are out there on the court and are going to be cheering. So there’s nothing negative, or to feel overwhelmed about because they’re just going to be rooting for me.”

To fill down time between matches Raducanu likes to scroll through her pictures or watch re-runs of matches. It triggers shot memory, helps recreate the feeling of winning and doing well in key contests. Last year’s third round is a favourite. “I remember I was hitting some incredible shots that just came out of nowhere. I was just thinking I had no idea how I had pulled that off. I can relive every single moment of that.”

Her unblemished face beams delight at the recollection. Despite our attempts to make this stuff an onerous thing Raducanu refuses to play ball. She is one of only 126 women in the history of tennis to win a grand slam tournament. If that’s as good as it gets it is already a remarkable thing, and one she appears predisposed to enjoy.

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