Match Points #32: Is Raducanu real thing or fluke?
In the latest edition of Match Points, Marion Bartoli, Carole Bouchard and Simon Cambers try to make sense of Emma Raducanu’s epic Grand Slam title run, and examine the stark contrast that exists between the joy of the teenagers and the mental struggles of Naomi Osaka.
As the 2021 Grand Slam season comes to a close, Match Points is back for another hard-hitting episode. Just days after Emma Radacanu shocked the sporting world by winning the US Open on her main draw debut and smashed the record for the fewest Grand Slam appearances (2) needed before winning a maiden major title, our panel dedicates time to the 18-year-old’s sudden emergence.
Marion Bartoli, Carole Bouchard and Simon Cambers joined host Josh Cohen for a deep dive into the Brit’s improbable breakout, and stuck around to opine on US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez, as well as the travails of Naomi Osaka.
Raducanu’s “freak moment” for British tennis
Our panel is still trying to make sense of what they witnessed last Saturday in New York, as Raducanu marched past Leylah Fernandez in the first all-teenager Grand Slam final in 22 years, which also happened to be the first all-unseeded final in Grand Slam history.
It was a moment unlike any other in history, says Cambers.
“It was out of this world, wasn’t it? It was amazing enough that she got through qualifying to make the main draw,” Cambers said. “But then to see the way she just carried on – didn’t drop a set through the whole tournament. It’s a freak moment in British tennis, but one that we hope will lead to many more successes for her.
“I think she is so well-placed to deliver on that. Obviously I’m not going to get ahead of myself and start predicting loads of Grand Slam titles. We don’t know, she’s not been on tour for more than three months, but she has everything she needs to be a success, and I just think it was such a fantastically joyous moment for women’s tennis.”
2013 Wimbledon champion Bartoli believes that the LTA has done a wonderful job to prepare Raducanu for success at the highest level and she says that positive role models like Andy Murray, who snapped a 76-year drought for British tennis when he won the US Open title in 2012, play a role.
“Even though she had zero experience at that level I didn’t see anything in her game that was starting to collapse,” Bartoli said. “And that to me showed first of all confidence, but especially preparation. Especially mentally preparation, just to imagine yourself there one day, and that’s probably the long road of work of the LTA has been doing over the years, just to give those players a platform and the voice of someone who has done it more and more times, like Andy.
“Someone to tell them ‘This is what you will see, this is what you will need, these are the tools I am giving you.’ I think this is the extraordinary job of the LTA to put that on the table for those players, because at some point it’s not anymore about the forehand and the serve, it’s about the belief and the mental aspect as well.”
Bartoli admits that Raducanu’s achievement is a mind blower. She says her poise under pressure was extraordinary.
“I never thought for one moment that she would collapse. And that is extraordinary to witness for someone with absolutely zero experience at any level, let alone in a Grand Slam. She never played WTA 1000, WTA 500, she just went out and felt like she owned that stage. I think she won that US Open because of that.”
Raducanu is no fluke
Winning 20 consecutive sets to become the first qualifier to ever win a major? That’s no joke – and not a fluke – says Bartoli.
“I don’t think it’s going to be a one-off,” said Bartoli. “You just don’t win the US Open without dropping a set, you can’t be lucky ten matches in a row if you don’t have the level. … I don’t see why she would collapse [in the future]. Only the pressure, but I think she’s ready for that. I don’t think she wants to stop at one Grand Slam.”
“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” says Cambers. “I think you look back to Wimbledon where we first saw her. She got to the fourth round, nobody knew anything about her, the way she was playing was great. She had that moment where she had a panic attack and everything got too overwhelming for her. But look how she responded to it. That’s absolutely amazing, to go from that, where people were questioning whether she had what it took to make it at the top level at all to winning a Grand Slam in the space of two months.”
The glaring differences between the joy of the teenagers and the struggles of Osaka
What to make of the fact that at a time when defending champion Naomi Osaka was struggling with mental health issues and done in by what she called a lack of joy in her tennis, two teenagers stole the spotlight and played the final in New York?
Bouchard says it was refreshing to watch the kids swing from the hip and that is why the US Open was so special this year.
“We were all in this narrative, saying ‘Tennis is so hard on the players’ minds, they can’t compete with the pressure, media are going too hard on those kids,’ and then you get Fernandez and Raducanu coming, all lights out, big eyes, so happy just to be out there, enjoying the moment, not thinking about the backstage, the business,” Bouchard said. “They’re just playing the match and beating those players. It’s so refreshing, and the contrast is massive between them and Naomi feeling like she needs a break and has no joy out there.”
Bartoli believes that it might be simple for Raducanu and Fernandez at the moment, but she has immense sympathy regarding all the pressures that Osaka faces.
“First of all, it’s one thing to come out and play when you have absolutely nothing to lose,” says Bartoli. “It’s another thing when you win four Grand Slams, $55 million in endorsements a year and you have to prove and feel like you deserve that every single time you play a tennis match. It’s a total different way to approach a tennis match. And as much as it is easy to say ‘Oh just play tennis like you were when you were 16 or 17 and innocent – it’s impossible to be that way again for Naomi.
“It’s literally impossible. When you represent so much and you are the face of so many brands, very prestigious brands, of course. When you step on the court the only thing that is going to make you happy is to win.”