Young Emma Raducanu's winning journey via Pune, Chandigarh, New Delhi

  • In December 2019, the young British player was in India to play a couple of ITF tournaments—second rung in the sport’s competition structure—in Solapur and Pune.
Young Emma Raducanu's winning journey via Pune, Chandigarh, New Delhi(AP) PREMIUM
Young Emma Raducanu's winning journey via Pune, Chandigarh, New Delhi(AP)
Published on Sep 13, 2021 07:24 AM IST
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By Rutvick Mehta

To put some perspective into Emma Raducanu’s astonishing ride to become Grand Slam champion at 18, let’s rewind to her previous tournament victory. It’s not that far behind, or that far away.

In December 2019, the young British player was in India to play a couple of ITF tournaments—second rung in the sport’s competition structure—in Solapur and Pune. Ranked in the mid-500s then, she needed to get through qualifying just to play in Pune, a $25,000 hard-court event. Raducanu won two qualifying games, five main draw matches and the trophy. She earned 51 ranking points and $3,935 in prize money.

Less than 22 months later, and eons away in the tennis ecosystem, Raducanu won three qualifiers, seven main draw matches and another trophy: the US Open. She earned 2040 rankings points with Saturday’s win worth $2.5 million in prize money.

New York announced her among the global sporting elite; a world away from Pune that week two years ago.

“I mean, she played fabulous tennis then too,” said Akanksha Nitture, a fellow 18-year-old from Mumbai who played against Raducanu in the first qualifying round in Pune. “At that time though I didn’t imagine she will play at this level so fast, that she will play a Grand Slam final, that she will win it.”

Her India connection goes back to the previous year, as a junior. In 2018, Raducanu won the ITF Junior Tennis Grade 3 event in Chandigarh without dropping a set, going on to win a second ITF junior event a week later in New Delhi.

The tennis world has fascinating teen triumph stories, many in the US Open itself—Tracy Austin, Steffi Graf, Pete Sampras, Monica Seles, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova among them. Most of them were young stars marked for great success even before acquiring the stamp of a Grand Slam winner; a la Coco Gauff of the current generation.

Raducanu, though seen as a promising talent, was barely known till a few months ago. She played her first ITF level competition in May 2018, and had since managed to win tournaments in some of the nondescript events on the tennis calendar, let alone one in the heart of New York—a $15,000 event in Tiberias, Israel, in May 2018, a $15,000 event in Antalya, Turkey, in October 2018 and the $25,000 in Pune.

It’s a record that mirrors many of the thousands on the ITF tour, fighting week in and week out for some ranking points, money and a chance to progress to the next level on the professional tour. It helped that Canadian-born Raducanu moved to Britain as a child. Her Romanian father and Chinese mother, both finance industry professionals, shifted from Toronto to Bromley in south of London when she was two. With a promising game, the girl got the backing of LTA (the British tennis governing body) and other support system.

The local hope was handed a wild card for the WTA 250 Viking Open in Nottingham in June this year, marking her first appearance on the elite level. A first-round defeat followed. Later that month, she received another wild card, this time to play in Wimbledon, ranked 338. It’s where the world had the first glimpse of Raducanu. She became an overnight sensation in Britain, entering the second week by defeating three higher-ranked players, including two in the top-50, before pulling out mid-match from her Round of 16 clash against Ajla Tomljanovic with the stress of the spotlight getting to her.

A few were quick to pull the youngster down. Raducanu herself slid back into quieter space, playing an ITF tournament in Landisville and a couple of WTA events on the US swing. Her Wimbledon run though had significantly boosted her rankings, and world No. 150 was enough to merit a qualifying spot at the US Open.

Welcome to Slam No. 2. Could it match the fairytale-like first? Nope. It could match any surreal sporting success storyline; rather make them seem less outrageous in comparison.

From the first qualifying match to the final, from the first set to the last, Raducanu flew untouched. She won 10 matches and 20 sets without needing a tiebreaker, losing just 50 games and schooling the likes of Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and French Open semi-finalist Maria Sakkari. No other player has won a Grand Slam as a qualifier and no other woman has taken fewer attempts than her two to win a maiden Slam.

Raducanu played the entire US Open with a refreshingly carefree attitude that translated into an attacking style. Even in her 6-4, 6-3 final win over fellow teen Leylah Fernandez—who had a dream tournament of her own—the striking difference was the quality of serve. It got her out of trouble on many occasions and solid play from the baseline with an ability to change the direction of shots (forehand to backhand, cross-court to down-the-line) at will.

Those facets have only developed since that Pune run. “I remember her serves were really sharp and her control of the ball was admirable. Her tennis was solid overall even then,” Nitture, who lost 6-1, 6-0 in that Pune qualifier but described her contest as an enriching experience, recalled.

To play that game in lower-level tournaments is one thing, and to do that in a Grand Slam is another. Raducanu stayed true to her game and was calm throughout the three weeks, when there were few eyeballs on her during the qualifiers or when capacity crowds in one of the largest tennis stadiums in the world were rooting for her.

Raducanu’s journey has been as incredible as it is inspiring, one that has not only given wings to her limitless ambition but also hope to many other kids toiling on the circuit to live their dreams one day. “When we see a player who played with us just a couple of years ago competing in Grand Slams now, and even winning it, it is inspirational that maybe we can also do something special,” said Nitture, singles winner at the national junior championship last month.

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Wednesday, October 27, 2021