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People are People, Not Stars

Emma Raducanu and the Celebrity of Women’s Tennis

For women’s sport, there is no greater stage than tennis. Only the Olympics or high-profile international tournaments can rival the public exposure tennis brings to professional female athletes. But during the Olympics, the exposure is fleeting, only coming once every four years. The interest is less because of the individuals and more because of what they represent. It’s a patriotic allure, rather than an individual one. Women’s football for example has yet to produce a star of the same calibre as men’s football. Jessica Ennis Hill may be a household name in Britain, but not so around the world.

The same cannot be said for tennis. Nothing comes close to matching the celebrity, and the wealth, of the world’s top female tennis players. The most recognisable active female athlete in the world was, up to her retirement, indisputably Serena Williams, and her sister Venus Williams wasn’t far behind. On Forbes’ list of the highest earning female athletes 2021, 50% were tennis players, including a clean sweep of the top three places on the list. The highest paid female tennis player in 2021, Naomi Osaka, accordingly earned a whopping $59 million in prize money and endorsements.

Why, exactly, is tennis so conducive to celebrity? Despite its image as a gentleman’s sport, played on immaculate green grass lawns in the presence of royals and aristocrats, the attraction of tennis is very similar to the attraction of fighting sports. It has much in common with boxing. The urge to tune into the Wimbledon final and watch Djokovic duke it out with his latest challenger is the same urge to watch Tyson Fury dispose of the next pretender to his heavyweight crown. Stars and celebrity are the drivers of such individual sports; Serena Williams may have retired, but new stars are always on the verge of birth, all of them just as good at hitting a ball of felt across a roughly 24 metre-long tennis court.

On Saturday 11th September 2021, another one of these stars burst into unceremonious life. Why unceremonious? Because in many ways, Emma Raducanu’s triumph in the 2021 edition of the US Open women’s singles could go down as the most unlikely victory in tennis history. It was a classic rank outsider story — one that, logically, should have been inconceivable.

Of course, there had been hints of talents, of promise. An impressive cameo appearance at Wimbledon earlier that year had introduced Raducanu to tennis fans all around the world. She reached the fourth round of the tennis world’s premier (and almost only) grass court tournament. She played to a live audience of millions on BBC1, and despite being overwhelmed by the occasion to the point of what looked like a panic attack, the ferocity of her groundstrokes was patently clear.

As someone who followed her results through that now famous US Open run, I went from pleasantly surprised, to overwhelmingly so, to the point when it occurred to me… she might actually win this. The bagels (winning sets 6-0) and general dominance of her early round victories were impressive, sure, but how would she perform under the lights of Arthur Ashe Stadium, perhaps the most intimidating stage in tennis? I watched her dismantle Belinda Bencic in the quarter finals, the 11th seed at the time, with an imperious quality that made me jokingly predict she would go on to win. But I didn’t think she’d actually do it. Even when she reached Championship Point, and subsequently served the winning ace, I thought it couldn’t be true. But it was. She became the first qualifier in the open era to win a slam. Ever. Ever!

But a year on from that most astonishing and ludicrous of victories, things have been… different. Very different. For one, she hasn’t reached a single final at any level on the WTA tour, and while there have been victories, they’ve been book-ended by lots of losses, early-round exits and, most worryingly, a revolving door of five different coaches. Only those in the Raducanu camp can understand this unusually high turnover rate, but amid whispers of a controlling father figure, the dip in Raducanu’s results is symbolic of one of the worst trends in modern women’s tennis: overwhelming pressure.

The sudden rise and fall of Raducanu’s fortunes on the court was preceded by that of Naomi Osaka. From late 2018 to 2021, Osaka had an air of invincibility on hard courts, winning every single major on that surface. Her success, though much greater than Raducanu’s single US Open win, also resulted in a host of lucrative sponsorship deals. The money to be made from endorsements at the top level of women’s tennis is eye-watering. Osaka endorses an array of high level brands including Nike, Nissan, Tag Heuer and Louis Vuitton, which according to Forbes amounts to approximately $60 million a year.

Raducanu’s list of sponsors and endorsements is almost as long as Osaka’s. In the aftermath of her US Open win, she has been collecting them like Pokemon: Tiffany & Co, Nike, Porsche, HSBC, British Airways, Evian and Dior have all joined her party, among others. While I highly doubt Raducanu or Osaka baulk at the prospect of making a fortune, the pressure placed on young women to be simultaneously brand ambassadors, sporting giants and role-models for people the same age as them must be insurmountable. For Osaka, whose struggles with mental health have been increasingly public, the effects of said pressure have been well-documented. For Raducanu, whose every move has been unfairly scrutinised for months, no better epitomised than by a five-year restraining order given to Amrit Magar for stalking her, we can only hope a similar slump isn’t on the horizon.

The message is self-explanatory. People are people, not stars. Perhaps it’s time we started seeing the humanity behind the glitter. Perhaps we need to give the young women who are very good at hitting a ball of felt across a roughly 24 metre-long tennis court some time. A radical thought, I know, but an important one.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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