Less than 48 hours after her momentous event of winning the US Open final tennis victory, Emma Raducanu will already be in a whirl of brand new emotions & activity. Almost all of it will be of no help to her on-court tennis development whatsoever.
The ‘almost’ is a nod to the obvious benefits of sealing the major commercial deals that are being presented to her agent and team and which will enable her to surround herself with the extra resources necessary to potentially play at the highest level. That apart, for an 18 year old less than a month from receiving her (very good) high school leaving results (called A-levels in the UK) the next year will make or break her future athletic career.
This blog is a cautionary tale drawn from the annals of recent and distant tennis history.
First of all, so much has been written in the media about this naturally talented, gifted athlete. What utter rubbish. Emma Raducanu has worked harder than most of us can even compute for 12 years already. She may be blessed with better than average hand-eye coordination but all the rest is down to grit and determination to reach the top.
She hasn’t won club, national & international championships for the last 12 years by accident. But all that work to date has been about tennis and blending it with school and family life. Nothing can prepare you for the maelstrom of living in the media & more appropriately, social media spotlight. She will know the story of Genie Bouchard, the Canadian prodigy who after a breakthrough season in 2014 has barely won since but has built a very impressive media and modelling career.
More mature readers will recall the Russian, Anna Kournikova and going further back the American, Andrea Jaeger – players capable of reaching the very top of ladies tennis… but didn’t. Rather than listen to the stories about Serena and Roger, I fervently hope that her team and family are talking about Genie, Anna and all the other ‘nearly’ stars. An awareness of what can go wrong (from a tennis perspective) is far more instructive than what can go right.
The unintended consequence of sudden stardom these days is a barrage of offers and activity which fundamentally undermine the chance of you ever reaching the same highs again.
Let’s now unpack just some of what’s ahead for this magical young lady.
- Like most bright & articulate 18 year olds, she has the possibility to head to college and gain an undergraduate degree. Will she do this now? Probably not, it’s hard to imagine the rigours of being a full time professional on the WTA tour sitting alongside studying for a BA. But we should talk about these decisions & not just immediately assume that an 18 year old has a binary simple decision to make by curtailing her academic career.
- Success early is always harder than success later. Think back to when you were 18 and just imagine being in Emma’s shoes with a potential 15 year career still ahead…
- Every player on the tour now has 10 matches from her US Open era journey to watch back to figure out her game, her strengths and weaknesses, her ‘tells’ & her favoured shots. Information is power & nobody will underestimate her ever again. There are unlikely to be any more easy wins at the late stages of major championships.
- The more commercial endorsements her team accepts, the more time Emma will be occupied off court and away from the gym. The average tennis viewer probably doesn’t realise that a pro tennis player needs to be training & playing 30 hours a week, every week including Christmas!
- Images of Emma will flood social media, so many athletes develop body confidence issues as a result as their shape is critiqued by millions of followers globally. Particularly for a young teenage woman this is a very real issue.
- The more her training, strength and conditioning is packed into a very busy diary, the less her body can cope with the rigours and injuries will start to arrive. Sometimes, it can be as simple as not devoting enough time to warm ups/warm downs & stretching.
- She will be travelling constantly, probably upwards of 200 days a year, at first this will be fun, in time the gloss will have worn off.
- Personal relationships will become much more challenging logistically and emotionally. Being grounded at home makes such a difference in the day-job. Think Tim Henman, Andy Murray, Roger Federer…
- Top 50 players will see her as a direct competitor, this will change the relationship she has with her ‘heroes’ of yesterday.
- She is now rich, period. The upsides of this are clear. The downsides are significant. It’s one thing being rich in private, quite another in public glare.
- The British media. Often characterised as the most fickle, UK hacks are prone to building up a star and being willing to knock them back down again the moment something changes.
Many sages will suggest that it all comes down to the right guidance – parents, management, agent, friends… Of course, all these people will have a bearing on the next 12 months. But most of all, it comes down to Emma. Is she equipped to personally float above the noise & remain a professional athlete front and centre.
Does her head get turned at the chances to model, to meet famous people, to believe the bullshit from those wanting something from her. Very few 18 year old’s can resist these temptations, I fervently hope and pray that she can, as we have the makings of the most successful player in women’s tennis history on our hands.