ON THE OUTSKIRTS of Hyde Park in the middle of London is the Royal Albert Hall. A place commissioned by Queen Victoria in the late 19th century, it has hosted rock stars and royalty. Synonymous with glitz and glamour, the steeping banks of chairs all focus down in the vast auditorium.
It is a place built for entertainment.
To get an idea of what it’s like to be Emma Raducanu in 2022, her journey so far can be summed up in three visits to the famous old concert hall.
On Dec. 6, 2008, Pete Sampras was making his Albert Hall debut for the “Masters Tennis.” He was there alongside Goran Ivanisevic, Stefan Edberg and John McEnroe. A 6-year-old Raducanu watched from The Circle, high, high above. The players looked like ants playing the most miraculous tennis shots. Raducanu laughed along with the antics of trick shot master Mansour Bahrami. She was enthralled.
Fast forward to Sept. 29, 2021. Fifteen days after attending the Met Gala in New York City, Raducanu was back at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Stormzy, Billie Eilish, Harry Kane and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge for the royal premiere of the new James Bond film “No Time to Die.” She was asked the questions celebrities get asked in these moments: “Who are you wearing?” (It was Dior, by the way.) Nearby, the film’s lead, Daniel Craig, was fielding questions in the rain. Raducanu’s smile beamed through the shouts of “Emma, here!” and hundreds of photographers’ camera flashes. She’d be on the front cover of most newspapers the following day, ahead of the Bond cast. The headlines screamed in large font: “Raducanu serves on the red carpet” and “Raducanu aces red-carpet glamour.”
It was around this time that she returned to the home of the Lawn Tennis Association — the national governing body of tennis in the U.K. — for the first time since she’d won the US Open. She was there with her dad and coaches. Emma said she wanted her US Open trophy to live there. Her dad had something more pressing on his mind: He was concerned about her forehand grip.
In late November, she was standing in the middle of Royal Albert Hall, soaking up the adulation of the British public. Weeks after celebrating her 19th birthday, she had the place in the palm of her hand as the new queen of the sport. She’d completed a straight-sets victory in the end-of-year jamboree called “The Battle of the Brits” over her friend Elena-Gabriela Ruse. The result was largely irrelevant, but this was to be her last on-court appearance of 2021.
It was a celebration of Raducanu’s year.
She told her fans about how she still takes the train. She said she is the same as any other teenager — albeit one who became the first tennis player to win the US Open as a qualifier months earlier. The crowd laughed as she spoke about how her parents had told her off for saying she was tired. They loudly cheered her name in the famous old building, a sporting coronation in Queen Victoria’s parlor.
AFTER THE US OPEN, everything and nothing changed for Emma Raducanu: To the sporting public, she is a superstar, an inspiration; to brands, she is a dream; to her on-court rivals, she is another threat for them to see off; to her parents and friends, she is simply Emma; but to herself, she is above all a tennis player. It is through that lens, that of a tennis player trying to cement herself at the top of the women’s game, that Emma Raducanu will manage 2022, on and off the court, as she maps out the next chapter of this bewildering journey.
Just 13 days after winning the US Open, Raducanu and her interim coach, Andrew Richardson, went their separate ways. It was a mutual decision between the two parties, the right time to close that chapter, sources have since told ESPN. Raducanu publicly stated she wanted a coach with more WTA experience and would wait for the right candidate. Jeremy Bates, the former British men’s No.1, is what the LTA call her “case manager.” (Raducanu is on the LTA’s scholarship program. All funded players have one of these case managers who help map out a player’s year and support their immediate team.)
Raducanu’s first tournament after the US Open was at Indian Wells. Back at the end of August when she entered the US Open as a qualifier, she was 150th in the world — ahead of Indian Wells, she was No. 22. Bates stepped up to interim coach and was at the tournament alongside her agent Chris Helliar and hitting partner Raymond Sarmiento.
“Her life was not her own, even out there,” Bates told ESPN. “She had to be filtered through the crowds to get to the practice courts. Even at the practice courts, the stands were full — with banks of cameras all the way up. But it didn’t impact the quality of her practice, or her concentration.” She’d lose her opening match to world No. 100 Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-2, 6-4.
“I think it’s going to take me time to adjust really to what’s going on,” Raducanu said afterward. “I mean, I’m 18 years old, I need to cut myself some slack.”
“She said to me she hadn’t reconciled the magnitude of what she had done in the US Open, and the way it had changed her life,” Bates said later. “At that moment in time, she wasn’t quite ready yet.”
Pam Shriver has been there. She reached the 1978 US Open final at 16 years old.
“What I can relate to is the following stage and what happens next. Your whole development pathway has been jolted, there is no more developing your game in a quiet, normal and low-profile manner.”
Pam Shriver, who reached the 1978 US Open final at 16 years old
“What I can relate to is the following stage and what happens next,” Shriver told ESPN. “Your whole development pathway has been jolted, there is no more developing your game in a quiet, normal and low-profile manner. Every match you play feels different, there is no more ‘under the radar’.”
After Indian Wells, Raducanu would play two more tournaments — the Transylvanian Open in Cluj, Romania, and another tournament in Linz, Austria — and the attention had shifted. She was facing questions over her off-court commitments and the future.
“I feel like everyone should be a little patient with me,” she answered before Cluj.
She would record her first victory in a WTA tour match, against Polona Hercog, but lose in the quarterfinals to Marta Kostyuk 6-2, 6-1.
“I made it very, very clear to every single person in my team that I was not going to cancel one training session, or practice session for any off-court commitments,” she said before Austria. “That was a non-negotiable for me — tennis is my priority.”
In Austria, Wang Xinyu, ranked No. 106 in the world at the time, knocked her out in the second round.
These results seemed shocking to many observers, when in reality, her run at the US Open belied her inexperience. She didn’t even pick up a racket in 2021 until March 18, due to studying for her A-Level exams, a far cry from the offseason schedules of the top players on both the men’s and women’s tours. From mid-March, Raducanu played in two tournaments at Nottingham, reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon. In that match, she retired due to breathing difficulties. Then came three tournaments in the U.S. before that magical run in New York that ended with her holding the US Open trophy.
She finished the year in the Albert Hall talking about how “pressure is a privilege.” She went from passing A-levels to being one of the most famous athletes in the world in the span of one calendar year.
SINCE WINNING THE US Open, Raducanu has announced four new off-court partnerships. In late September, Tiffany & Co were announced as one of her new sponsors; on Oct. 19, Dior announced her as an ambassador. In early December, she signed a partnership with Evian, and faced questions over whether these new deals were a distraction.
“To me the things that matter are the expectations of myself and what I want to achieve and what I want to get out of the day,” she said on Sky News at her Evian unveiling. “It’s just about improving and seeing yourself get better and I don’t take anyone else’s opinions into account except for my close circle.” She finished the year signing a partnership with British Airways.
Central to that close circle is her manager at IMG, Max Eisenbud, with Helliar running the day-to-day operations. Eisenbud oversaw Maria Sharapova and Li Na’s careers, and is well-versed in marrying off-court commitments while ensuring Raducanu stays focused on tennis. “IMG and Max are exceptionally good at managing the commercial engine,” says Shriver, while adding the caveat that it could “add pressure” as she gets used to the “process” and the demands.
With Sharapova — who won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17 — Eisenbud mapped out her year. They built in travel, training, tournaments and off time. There were approximately 18 days out of 365 where Sharapova could do commercial and media work. He’s taking a similar approach with Raducanu, keeping that side of her life separate from her tennis.
Former British No.1 Laura Robson knows about the sudden change, having gone from being a promising player to the great British hope. “I remember one time at Wimbledon in 2011, I’d beaten Angelique Kerber in the first round, and the next day in the paper, they had a picture of my ‘dad,’ but it was not him and a completely different person,” Robson told ESPN. “We still have that newspaper in the family home today.”
Robson — who is recovering from a hip operation and last played in 2019 — has one regret.
“I wish I’d kept my parents closer while traveling,” Robson says. “You are at the age when you think you can handle it all, go out there with only your coach and your trainer and it’ll be great. In hindsight, I think it’d have helped having someone there who was not tennis-related.”
Raducanu’s parents, though, have been a strong guiding hand throughout her career. During Wimbledon the camera panned to shots of her mother, Renee, in the crowd. During the US Open, Raducanu’s parents were back home in Bromley, unable to travel due to COVID-19 restrictions. But her father, Ian, was there to welcome her on her return.
“I have my parents who would 100 percent let me know if [my attention] was getting swayed”
Emma Raducanu, on staying grounded during almost-instant celebrity
“I have my parents who would 100 percent let me know if [my attention] was getting swayed,” Raducanu said.
Raducanu’s Instagram bio reads: “London/Toronto/Shenyang/Bucharest.” Her mother is from China, her father from Romania, while Emma was born in Canada. “[My parents are] very tough to please and have high expectations … so that’s a big driving factor as to why I want to perform,” Raducanu told British Vogue. “My mum comes from a Chinese background, they have very good self-belief … it’s about believing it within yourself. I really respect that about the culture.”
After her triumph in New York, she spoke in perfect Mandarin to a Chinese TV station. In Cluj at the Transylvanian Open she spoke in Romanian, a nod to her father.
“I know her dad very well, I’ve spent hours on the phone to him,” Jeremy Bates says. “He is a great guy, and his standards are very high. He has a similar mentality to Emma in terms of this desire — you can engage in a very cerebral tennis conversation with him, and he’s ambitious. The whole mentality, the focus, drive, determination — they’re not forced upon her at all, they are part of her DNA.” Matt James, who coached Raducanu from 15 to 17, was there for the conversation about the forehand grip after the US Open. “I wasn’t expecting that,” James says. “The best way to describe it is just high standards, a willingness to learn and learn at every available possibility.”
Raducanu still surprises those closest to her with her approach to gleaning as much information from those around her.
Bates remembers receiving a call one evening back in January 2021 from Raducanu, who was revising for her exams.
“She phoned me up saying she’d been watching matches late at night from the Australian Open,” Bates said. “She had picked out specific points from some of her immediate rivals in terms of age groups. We went through them on Zoom, and she asked ‘well why are they doing this?’ and ‘why are they doing that?’ In all the years I’ve been in tennis, I have never had a player ask me to do that. She is a sponge for information. Her desire for information is staggering.”
There are other tales about how she does not end practice until she’s either mastered the precision of the task or has satisfied her own high standards.
“She was doing basket work, where you’re just returning ball after ball after ball,” Robson recalls of a post-US Open practice. “She was out there for hours, absolutely no change to how she was when I first saw her. She’s got such a good head on her shoulders.”
Her preseason schedule was interrupted when she tested positive for COVID-19. Still, the focus was on building her body up for a year on the WTA Tour. Raducanu has already spoken publicly about the need to improve her speed to the net. It will be up to her new coach, Torben Beltz, to work on that, while accompanying her for the 40-or-so-weeks she’ll spend on tour in 2022.
Beltz’s appointment was confirmed in early November after Raducanu was spotted meeting with him in a café in Orpington, a town close to her family home in Bromley. Her team had spoken to a number of coaches but zeroed in on the 44-year-old German, who coached Kerber to three Grand Slams.
“His experience definitely helps with someone as inexperienced as me,” Raducanu said soon after the appointment. “He brings great energy. It’s really cool to have that in my team so he’s constantly lifting the mood.”
In mid-November, Raducanu did something for the first time in seven years: She had a holiday. It was during those six days in the Caribbean that — between sessions on the jet ski — she allowed herself time to reflect. She took a step back. She appreciated how far she’d come. Once those six days were up, it was back to business and focusing on 2022.
SPEAK TO THOSE in British tennis, and they are simply excited about Raducanu’s potential. Iain Bates, head of women’s tennis at the LTA, remembers first seeing her at age 9 or 10. He has been monitoring her trajectory ever since. He was there at the US Open and saw how she’d eat poke bowls every night and kept her phone at arm’s length. She listened to jazz music in the hotel, watched Formula One and stayed away from social media as best she could.
“This wasn’t as such a secret coming out of the bag, but more just Emma showing the world who she is, what she stands for and that’s what makes me incredibly proud,” he says. “She’s managed everything so well, suddenly going from an A-level student to a global superstar and she’s done such a great job of embracing everything as well as she’s done.”
Others, when asked about how she’ll navigate 2022, say it will be on her terms alone. Raducanu has spoken to other British tennis players for insight into life in the British spotlight. She had Tim Henman courtside throughout the US Open — he was there on TV duty — and kept looking at him throughout to ground herself. She has spoken with Andy Murray. She’s also picked race car driver Lewis Hamilton’s brain on life as a sporting superstar.
Emma Raducanu’s Met Gala highlight?
Meeting Lewis Hamilton 🤗 pic.twitter.com/I3ATI4ZRMA
— ESPN F1 (@ESPNF1) September 17, 2021
“He said ‘Be patient, you’ve just got to ride the wave. It’s all good, don’t worry.'”
Raducanu said the greatest thing she’s learned over the past six months is the need for “patience and being kind to [herself].”
She reiterated that after her opening match of 2022 — a straight-sets defeat to world No.13 Elena Rybakina in Sydney. Having pulled out of a tournament the week prior as she continued recovering from COVID-19, Raducanu was outplayed, losing 1-6, 0-6.
“I could have easily said it’s too soon and just played next week, but I wanted to really test where I’m at and give myself some competitive points and matches. This will help in putting me in a better place,” she said afterward.
Having just one match prior to the start of the Australian Open wasn’t the plan, but this will be the third Grand Slam of her career. She will arrive there as one of the most well-known players, unlike when she started her grass-court season back in May last year. She’s a global superstar, adored by a nation that crowned her BBC Sports Personality of the Year, an award voted for by the British public. She has 2022 planned out with the Slams circled, alongside all the new venues she’ll take in on tour.
“We need to rejoice and celebrate her,” Iain Bates says. “We all want her to go on and win X number of titles, which may be in 2022, or it may not be. She has still got a lot of stages to go through to being close to her best.”
It’s been a whirlwind, but she’s taking it all in her stride, as she told her adoring fans in the Albert Hall.
“My expectations [for 2022] are to keep improving so that I can look back at the end of the year and know I’ve made gains,” she said. “It’s going to take a lot of patience to get to where I want to be and smooth out that consistency. That’s my biggest goal.
“It will be my first calendar year on the tour, so it will be a cool experience to play a full schedule. I’m looking forward to learning.” She still thinks of herself as the same 19-year-old from Bromley. That grounded perspective has served her well as she adapts to a new year where she will no longer enjoy the benefits of anonymity.