MARTIN SAMUEL: Unprecedented in Britain. Unprecedented FULL STOP. Dazzling star Emma Raducanu’s US Open triumph tops any of sport’s great stories
- Emma Raducanu won the US Open women’s final on Saturday night in New York
- The British teen was ranked 338th in the world in June but is now a champion
- Raducanu, 18, became the first qualifier to ever win a Grand Slam tournament
- Her achievements in the States will go down as one of sport’s greatest feats
Forget, for a moment, notions of Britishness. Forget that Emma Raducanu might be the first British this, or the only British that. This is bigger than any falsely reflected glory, any Lilliputian concepts of identity.
What Emma Raducanu achieved in New York is unprecedented, anywhere. Unprecedented within these shores, unprecedented beyond. Unprecedented across all countries, all continents, any origin story you can name. She has no predecessor and, one imagines, no successor for the foreseeable future, too.
She could be no less surprising had she jumped out of the crowd, kicked off a set of high heels and won the Olympic 100 metres, running barefoot. There really is no comparable achievement to claiming a Grand Slam tennis tournament as a teenage pre-qualifier. Leicester City’s 2016 title? Yes, but in living memory, teams have won the league in their first season after promotion.
Emma Raducanu winning the US Open is one of the greatest sporting achievements ever
The 18-year-old was ranked 338th before this summer but is now a Grand Slam champion
No-one has done this. No man, no woman. That’s why it is so much bigger than where Raducanu is from. It’s where she’s at that makes her so special.
When Andy Murray won at Flushing Meadows in 2012 that was a British moment. He was the first British man to win a Grand Slam singles title since 1936, the first Scot since 1896. Yet others had been there before.
The four previous years had brought winners from Serbia, Spain, Argentina and Switzerland. What Murray did was magnificent, given the unique pressure on British players, but he was hardly an outlier in the global game.
Every year someone is the US Open champion. Not like Raducanu, though. Never like Raducanu. ‘It’s like winning the Grand National — on a cat,’ the comedian and columnist Mark Steel wrote of Leicester.
Raducanu has done that; except she’s jumped six additional fences that no-one else has had to clear, and then still won the race by 30 lengths.
British teenager Raducanu has become the first ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament
Not a set dropped in her 20 played and no tiebreaks either. Mariam Bolkvadze of Georgia took her to 7-5 in the second set of her second qualifying round game. Every other set was decided with six winning games. And yes, we’ve seen that done.
In 2014, Serena Williams won every set on her way to the US Open title, and gave up just 32 games. Raducanu lost 34 in the tournament proper, so was marginally less ruthless. However, in 2014, Serena arrived as the reigning champion, the No 1 seed, holder of 17 Grand Slam titles — 32 if we include her doubles — and four Olympic gold medals.
Raducanu was ranked 338th in the world prior to Wimbledon in June, and 150th on arrival in New York. She initially hoped to win enough prize money to replace the Airpods she mislaid in the dressing room prior to her first qualifier. As teenagers do.
So, let’s put those rankings into perspective. The 150th team in England’s football pyramid right now is AFC Telford of the National League North. Judging who is 338th takes a little more calculating, but it is probably Brighouse Town of the Northern League North West Division. Brighouse are based in West Yorkshire and have a record attendance of 1,059, versus Scarborough Athletic.
Raducanu hoped to win enough prize money to replace the Airpods she lost over in the US
The 150th male tennis player in the world is Antoine Hoang, of France, and 338th is Guillermo Garcia-Lopez of Spain. Neither is expected in a Grand Slam final anytime soon. The men’s golf rankings finds America’s Kramer Hickok at 150, and Scott Hend of Australia at 338.
This is where Raducanu’s ascent begins; from nowhere. Undoubtedly, she was ahead of the handicapper. Yet others will have been too, at similar stages of career development. And nobody — nobody — accomplished what Raducanu did.
So, having set aside nationality, let’s discard sport for the moment, too. What Raducanu has entered is pretty much the realm of artistic imagination, a world where anything is possible.
There is a scene in the film Mean Streets in which Martin Scorsese introduces us to the character Johnny Boy. Actually, he’s as much introducing us to the actor who plays him, New York icon Robert De Niro. Johnny Boy enters the club, a raven-haired girl on each arm, and Scorsese shoots him in slow motion.
No man or woman has achieved what Raducanu managed in New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium
He’s young, he’s cool, he’s lithe and effortless, the place stops to check him out, to stare and admire him. Scorsese drops the needle on the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. That’s Raducanu negotiating New York this week, talking about feeling at home inside the Arthur Ashe Arena on her first visit there.
Of course, Johnny Boy was a madman set fair for tragic ruin. Raducanu is a teenage girl, still charmingly humble and unassuming, who just months ago was sitting in a room having her A level mathematics examined. Still, the impact is not dissimilar.
In his 1981 film Scanners, David Cronenberg created cinema’s first exploding head shot and inserted it 10 minutes into the narrative. It was the most extraordinarily daring move. Having done that, what had he possibly got in store for the climax? And that is how we feel watching Raducanu. This is chapter one, for heaven’s sake. Where can she go from here?
It is why the dazzling brilliance of youth tops even sport’s greatest comeback stories. Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at the age of 50 was a quite stunning feat, until now arguably the pinnacle of the sporting year. Yet we know that, as a singles player at least, it is his final great scene. Since then, Mickelson’s form has not even been good enough to make the Ryder Cup team, unheard of for a major winner in tournament year.
Only Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at the age of 50 can compare to Raducanu
Yet Raducanu can go anywhere, be anything, her journey is only just beginning. It was delightful, watching her transformation after the presentation, the steel-nerved competitor glancing around the stadium after each sentence of her speech, as if suddenly anxious to be making the right moves.
Sitting on her throne later, joining in the crowd’s chorus of Sweet Caroline, it was hard to reconcile this figure with the competitive animal we had just witnessed, grinding another brave opponent into impotent submission.
She needn’t have worried about approval, of course. New York loves her, as it always loves winners. Later, in a black cocktail dress, hair perfect, killer ear-rings worn with the confidence of youth, she wowed again.
‘My dad said to me, “You’re even better than your dad thought”, so that was reassurance,’ she told a swooning audience. ‘Tinie Tempah reference there,’ she added, helpfully, for those feeling a little lost. ‘I’m ’bout to be a bigger star than my mum thought,’ he raps on his first single, Pass Out.
Fittingly it’s an anthem for a man who already knows he is a shooting star. ‘Look at all the drama we started,’ he says. ‘Extraordinary — hope you enjoy the show.’
It could be Raducanu speaking; because, from here, there’s definitely going to be a show. And we all know the shining star, the new queen who’ll be at the centre of it.
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