Image Credit: Carine06
Like the rising temperature does to the animals in spring, Emma Raducanu’s preposterous US Open victory in September put an end to hibernation for British tennis.
The magnitude of the teenager’s achievement in Flushing Meadows was somewhat underplayed partly because the human story was that an 18-year-old nobody had won a grand slam. And that was all true. But the extent to which she was a nobody is what was most ludicrous about it all. Never before had a qualifier ever reached a grand slam semi-final in either the men’s or women’s draws of any modern-era grand slam. Not only had Raducanu managed that, she’d then won her semi… and the final… and not dropped a single set along the way. At 18.
Overnight, Raducanu’s life changed forever. But something else is changing too. It perhaps doesn’t have the same permanence. And it perhaps isn’t quite so big a change. But something else is changing, and it is this: British tennis is lugging itself out of international obscurity.
It was too tempting during the peak of Andy Murray’s exceptional career to assume that British tennis was prospering. By no means was it prospering. It was simply the case that one of the five or six best players in the world, for a decade or so, was British. He’ll say Scottish, but we’ll go with British. That’s a debate for another time — and, besides, he’s not here to defend himself.
Murray grappled for top spot in the sport at a time when three utter freaks of nature were making grand slam wins seem more like fun run medals than the epitome of sporting mastery. But he still managed to win two Wimbledon titles, a US Open, and the men’s singles at both the London 2012 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 Olympic Games. He also won the ATP Finals in 2016 to finish the year as the world number one. The result of his sheer drive, not to mention his world-class defensive game.
But Murray’s magnificence was not tantamount to British brilliance. This was, after all, the exploits of just one (exceptional) player. Murray’s injury torment in the last four years is well documented, though he is now back fighting regularly at a level much higher than he was ever likely to return to. Murray’s prime gave British tennis prominence. The intervening years have shown British tennis to have depth rarely seen before.
On the men’s tour, Andy Murray’s brother Jamie has inevitably always found himself in Andy’s shadow. But as a doubles and mixed-doubles player, Jamie Murray has continued to perform at the very highest level. The former world number one at doubles is a seven-time grand slam winner and is still going strong ranked 19th at doubles at the ripe old age of 35.
Since Kyle Edmund stunned all in Melbourne to reach the 2018 Australian Open semi-finals, he has struggled with a chronic knee injury which is still keeping him out. But the 27-year-old has two career titles so will be back for sure. Murray, meanwhile, has earned a number of stunning wins over the likes of Rafael Nadal and top-ten players Hubert Hurkacz, Jannik Sinner and Casper Ruud recently. Having plummeted below 800 in the ATP rankings during his injury woes, he is now up at 102nd.
Yet Great Britain’s impact on the men’s tour touches much higher reaches of the elite than even this. Dan Evans at 22nd and Cameron Norrie at 13th have grafted hard at tour level, and results are now paying tangible dividends. Evans won his first career title in 2021 when he stunned Canadian sensation Félix Auger-Aliassime to win the Murray River Open in Australia. Then in July, Norrie won the Los Cabos Open in Mexico. And in October, Norrie produced the best tennis of his career to lift the title at Indian Wells. Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and 16 of the world’s top 20 all competed. 26th-ranked Norrie prevailed, seeing off Diego Schwartzman and Nikoloz Basilashvili en route to victory. It was a stunning result just a month after Raducanu’s Flushing Meadows fairy-tale.
Norrie, Evans and Murray will continue to lead Britain’s charge in the men’s singles as a new era begins. The era of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Nadal is nearing the end whether they like it or not. Can Norrie and Evans force themselves into the reckoning?
Emma Raducanu doesn’t need to force herself into the reckoning. She’s in the reckoning. She captured the British imagination when she reached the last 16 in her first-ever grand slam at Wimbledon last year. Then she did the supreme at the US Open. But although he has struggled for consistency since, so has everyone else on the women’s tour ever since Serena Williams started to fade from her hegemony.
Raducanu is 19 years old, ranked 13th in the world, British number one, and too powerful and too ruthless not to find similar levels to her autumn form at some point again in the future. It’s a good sign if a tennis player produces their best tennis when they really need to. She does.
Johanna Konta’s surprise retirement in December left a sizeable dent in the quality of British in the women’s draw. However, the former world number four leaves the tour in decent condition from a British perspective. Heather Watson is ranked 87th and — while blowing hot and cold — does have real pedigree, having won four singles and four doubles titles, as well as Wimbledon mixed-doubles in 2016. Besides Watson and the oh-so-exciting Raducanu, three more Brits find themselves inside the top 200: Harriet Dart, Katie Boulter and Francesca Jones.
It’s a thrilling time to follow British tennis — and an important time to remember that it’s not all about the return of Murray and the rise of Raducanu. Other players are available. Finally.