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Emma Raducanu: a story about sport not politics

Raducanu is a sporting underdog sensation, not a tool with which to score political points

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She celebrated with frozen yoghurt. Quite a lot has changed for Emma Raducanu since she sensationally won the US Open last month. But some things never change. Chocolate-flavoured frozen yoghurt is Raducanu’s usual post-victory ritual, so why change that now? Expect her on the packaging by the end of the year.

The world has opened up for Emma Raducanu. The upbeat 18-year-old from Bromley has done all that herself, through her courage, her calmness, her genius. Her social media accounts are some of the most interacted-with of 2021; in June she had 2,000 Instagram followers. That tally is now 1.9 million. She looks set to earn north of £100 million in sponsorship deals, and royal experts expect her to earn ‘an MBE at least’ in the Queen’s latest honours’ list. It would be quicker to count the national papers her infectious smile hasn’t graced the front and back pages of.

She can speak about immigration policy or the education system as much or as little as she likes.

With all this fuss, a disinterested onlooker could only assume Raducanu had produced one of the greatest sporting achievements in British history. That’s exactly what she’s done. There are very few people left who are still disinterested in the story of this young star.

The enormity of this achievement — the extent to which she trampled all remotely sensible odds — has almost been overshadowed by her only 18 years. That just shows how barmy all of this is. The Grand Slam era began in 1968, and has featured the four slams annually ever since. Never before had a qualifier (a player whose ranking was too low to grant them automatic entry to a slam tournament), male or female, ever reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam. Raducanu became the first… and then won her semi-final… and then stormed to victory in the final as well.

And the scarcely believable stats that help illustrate the ridiculousness of Raducanu’s triumph just keep coming. The Canadian-born Brit didn’t drop a single set in any of her ten matches during qualifying or the tournament proper. She never even needed a tiebreak to win one. 20 sets played; 20 sets won. Raducanu would win five straight games here, and six straight games there. Disregarding her own ranking of 150th, she won 11 games in a row on the way to dismantling 43rd-ranked American Shelby Rodgers — a decade Raducanu’s senior — in the round of 16. These purple-patches were dubbed ‘Raducanu runs.’

So ruthless were the qualifier’s efficient wins that despite playing three games more than her final opponent Leylah Fernandez, she actually spent less time on court over the course of the competition. The 18-year-old stuck to her simple mantra: turn up, win, smile, eat frozen yoghurt, repeat. She knocked out Olympic champion Belinda Bencic, as well as the 17th seed Maria Sakkari of Greece. It was an inconceivable run that not even her coaching team could have been bullish enough to predict.

It has been disheartening and yet depressingly familiar to hear how Raducanu’s awe-inspiring success has been used as a tool to make completely unrelated political points, though. Politicians and columnists on the left have claimed the right cannot reasonably celebrate her victory due to their stance on immigration and the fact that the Toronto-born teen has a Chinese mother and a Romanian father. Pundits and politicians on the right have instead argued that it is rich for the left to both revel in her triumph given her success was grounded in an education at a highly selective same-sex grammar school, and yet wish grammar schools a thing of the past.

Qualifiers don’t win tournaments; they don’t even reach the semi-finals. Except Emma Raducanu showed the world that they can.

It’s all very nasty, and very typical indeed. Why must those with political agendas tie their points to totally unpolitical news stories? Raducanu does not deserve to have every aspect of her private life on earth turned into angry opinion pieces and short shouts at the green bench opposite. What she deserves is quite a few apologies. She can speak about immigration policy or the education system as much or as little as she likes.

What Raducanu’s story should instead be used for is to convince anyone still unconvinced, that there is irresistible magic in sport. A qualifier probably won’t win a Grand Slam next year. Or the year after. Or the year after that. Raducanu did something unlikely — something just as unlikely to happen now as it was ahead of the greatest month of Emma’s life. Qualifiers don’t win tournaments; they don’t even reach the semi-finals. Except Emma Raducanu showed the world that they can.

So whether she went to a grammar school or not, whether she is an immigrant or not, the 18-year-old exposed the most beautiful and pure aspects of sport. Powered by her ferocious two-handed backhand winners, Raducanu served as compelling evidence that there is no script for sport. Her highly esteemed opponents, who all fell by the wayside once they met, served as evidence that there is jeopardy in sport — even when the odds are firmly in your favour.

If football’s European Super League — a sporting cartel — were trialled in tennis, Emma Raducanu wouldn’t have even been at the US Open last month. Her financial appeal to paying viewers would have been deemed too small, because of her slim following. That aged well…

Would people still be talking about her and writing about her and tweeting about her and attempting to sponsor her if she had been the favourite to win in Flushing Meadows? Emma Raducanu is newsworthy precisely because until very recently, she wasn’t.

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