At Traralgon, it is the flies that stand out, whacking you in the cheek as you play. And then there is the heat. It was 2019, the last time Emma Raducanu competed in Australia, at a precursor to the more prestigious Australian Open juniors, about an hour-and-a-half’s drive outside of Melbourne. She won the match I saw. Afterwards we talked about doing a proper cool down, changing her kit, refuelling properly, all the things you would say to a young junior. Things I would not dream of saying to her now.
At the National Tennis Centre the other week, we laughed at the memories. She was in Roehampton with her new coach, Torben Beltz, to introduce him to the British set-up. In the reception area, her US Open trophy had arrived and was being installed in a display cabinet. Now crowned the BBC Sports Personality of the Year winner, too, life has changed unimaginably for her, but in my eyes she is still just Emma – a teenager, hard-working and talented, joking around on the courts as any young player would do.
How to reconcile the two? That will no doubt be a huge part of her challenge going forward. As enjoyable as it is to be recognised and have people congratulating you, I imagine it is also quite draining. So many people know who she is now, and there is no precedent for the path she is on. Yes, we have had teenage Grand Slam champions before, Serena and Venus, Maria Sharapova and Martina Hingis, but they have never been British. She has not even played a season on tour yet, and she is going off to the Australian Open as one of the biggest stars in tennis.
While I never won a Grand Slam, when I look back on my own tennis career – reaching British no1, and at 17 the youngest ever player to make the Fed Cup team – I can’t help but think it was bloody crazy, too. Where we came from, people didn’t have tennis careers. Despite the obstacles, my parents changed that. Four of us kids, growing up on a housing estate in a cramped flat in Hackney, playing on the park courts at Hackney Downs, the sacrifices and dedication from my mum and dad was unreal. I was a child who relied and benefited from free school meals.
My parents were the driving force behind it all, my dad an immigrant from Laos, my mum a refugee. The one thing they always stressed to us was, “We’re doing this because we want you to have a better life than us. If you’re good at tennis, it will give you opportunities.”
But breaking into the sport, even at junior level – and still now – requires money. My dad worked night shifts, my mum brought in extra cash as a machinist sewing clothes in the garment factories. The money they earned went towards paying for my tennis squads.
Instead of summer holidays we went to tennis tournaments – I was taking part before I even knew how to score. In those days there was prize money to be won, and that would go back to mum and dad to help pay for the petrol, or my entry fee for the next event. Learning how to compete and finding a way to win from a young age helped accelerate my understanding of the sport. Some tournaments offered sportswear as prizes, and before long my whole family were kitted out in Adidas tennis shoes, or jumpers if you were the runner up.
I remember one coach questioning why I was playing all these competitions, and not having the courage to say, “Well, actually, we need the cash to fund everything.” It took every penny my parents had, and help from family members as well, to keep my tennis going. I joke with my dad now that he was such a pushy parent, but who knows where I would have got to without him.
Because of that I was always very aware of money. In my role as Billie Jean King Cup captain I say to the British players now, “don’t take it for granted”. It is a blessing to have so much more financial support available, but there is a danger of creating a culture of entitlement, and I think there needs to be more accountability from the players. They’ve got to respect it, not expect it. That’s one thing I stress to the team: you guys don’t realise how lucky you are. Don’t moan. Work hard and opportunities will come.
For some of the British players, Emma’s success is difficult to process. They have practised with her, they have beaten her, to think that she’s gone and won a Grand Slam is tough. It’s the goal that they have worked so hard for from a young age. They are happy for her, of course, but it’s a huge wake-up call – inspiring, but not easy. Along with Emma, British tennis is way more diverse than it ever used to be. It is a world away from what I experienced growing up in the 90s. I was always aware of not fitting in. Whether it was my mum’s broken English, our financial situation, or my skin colour, the other girls were different to me.
As Emma came through the juniors I often wondered what it meant to her to see someone with a skin tone like me. It is something I never experienced. Now she will be that beacon for others. I think about that for my daughter and my son, that they can identify with a British player of Asian heritage, who looks like them. Tennis should not be a white middle class sport, and Emma’s success sums that up beautifully.
Since Emma’s win we have seen a sharp rise in participation figures, but for kids from all backgrounds to have a chance to reach the top of the game too many barriers still exist, especially when it comes to money. I don’t know how the sport can solve such a longstanding problem. In other countries tennis is actively supported by local businesses, but here in the UK it’s hard to find someone willing to invest in a young player. The LTA provide support, but you’ve still got to put your own cash in. And that’s where I fear the gap could widen.
Emma was helped enormously by the LTA because she had talent. Her former coach Matt James moved to be near Bromley so he could be able to hit with her – an exceptional case – had she not been successful people might have said, “Oh, that’s another example of the LTA throwing cash at a player and not getting anything in return.”
Who will follow in Emma’s footsteps? An outstanding 12-year-old called Hannah Klugman is already a bright prospect. She’s probably the best player in the world for her age, having won all the big under 12 tournaments. She reached the semi-finals at Tarbes this year, an event for kids aged fourteen and under, the honours board of which is pretty much a who’s who of tennis: Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, Bianca Andreescu. Ranah Stoiber is another young player I’ve been on court with, she’s 16 and one of our best juniors. One of four, she is from Hounslow, she’s an unbelievable athlete, lightning quick, a lovely kid with heaps of potential. Of the Billie Jean King Cup team, Fran Jones, 21, and Jodie Burrage, 22, both stand out as potential top 100 players, if not better. Being around them I feel uplifted about British tennis.
I hope we have more players to back up Emma’s success. But I don’t think any parent who’s on that journey with their child should be naïve enough to think it’s straightforward. An outstanding junior doesn’t guarantee an outstanding pro player. At the age of 12, Emma wasn’t number one in the country – that was a player called Holly Fischer. She’s a catwalk model now. It just shows how much patience and dedication is required to make it.
In the meantime, of course, we have a whole new year of watching Emma to look forward to. I’ll be in Melbourne to see her compete for the first time at the Australian Open. There will be seven British women there, including Heather in the main draw.
Emma’s success has inspired so many young people to take up tennis already. The challenge now is to find a way to capitalise on it, and make sure those elite pathways are open to all. It would be wonderful to see more silverware in that Roehampton trophy cabinet, and enjoy more British female stars at the very top of the sport.