Now in the world spotlight, tennis sensation Emma Raducanu must face the intense pressure and expectations from both the public and media, writes Hsin-Yi Lo.
BRITISH TENNIS sensation Emma Raducanu stunned the world when she won the U.S. Open in an incredible match against Canada’s Leylah Fernandez. No doubt the youngster will return home with a Roman triumph, but I fear Raducanu will eventually face the harsh gladiatorial spectacle of the relentless public and vulture journalists if she fails to meet expectations.
The 18-year-old enjoyed a remarkable tournament at Flushing Meadows. She was ranked world number 345, went through the qualifying rounds and then ran the proverbial gauntlet, without dropping a set, to fight for the championship title.
The carefree youngster is still soaking in her glorious victory. She is the first qualifier to win a grand slam and the first British woman to win a major championship since 1977. At 18, the world is her oyster. It’s reminded me of what it was like turning 18 as I flew out of the nest to navigate life with nothing but fearless determination, naivety and the impetuousness of youth.
But for Raducanu, she is not only transitioning into adulthood but she has also joined the exclusive club of the young, rich and famous. She also has big shoes to fill as critics have already prophesied Raducanu will have an illustrious future.
Even if you don’t regularly watch tennis, I’m sure you would’ve heard of her by now. Having worked in the media and reported on sports stories before, I understand the appeal of a fairy tale story — particularly as this one brings us some light during these dark times.
As the newest heroine, tabloids like the Daily Mail are comparing Raducanu’s stardom to Beatlemania. Even the Queen has personally sent her a congratulatory letter. Soon, the youngster’s hands might get tired from signing countless endorsements. She will, at least for the time being, be under the microscopic analysis from non-stop media coverage and keen-eyed sports critics who are on this endless hunt for the next big thing in women’s tennis.
Even before winning her maiden major title, Raducanu had her first brush with merciless criticism when she withdrew from this year’s Wimbledon round four match due to breathing difficulties. We have seen how intense pressure and expectations have sabotaged tennis prodigies’ careers. In the '90s, America’s Jennifer Capriati was hailed as one of the future greats on tour. In 1991, she made it to the Wimbledon semi-finals and in 1992, the tennis whiz kid sent shockwaves across the sporting world when she won gold at the 1992 Barcelona Games after defeating legend Steffi Graf.
Being a teenage multi-millionaire is probably most people’s dream, but Capriati’s newfound fame ultimately contributed to her downfall. Unable to handle the pressure on and off court and with her own demons to battle, Capriati’s career declined. She rebelled against her parents, was charged with shoplifting and possession of marijuana in 1993 and 1994 respectively. Years later, Capriati admitted she had contemplated taking her own life when she was a teenager, citing body image issues.
Her Argentinian counterpart, Gabriela Sabatini, not only dealt with the expectation of being a top player of her era but to maintain the persona of being the perfect athlete with impeccable manners. With her natural grace and charm, Sabatini had many endorsements and commercials but her world came crashing down in 1993, starting with the French Open quarter-finals. As reported by the Los Angeles Times, Sabatini had a 6-1 5-1 lead against America’s Mary Joe Fernández but she still lost. She failed to meet expectations, was labelled as a choker and at one point in her career, she went on a 42-match losing streak.
Fast forward to the 21st Century, today’s athletes continue the uphill battle to meet the public’s insatiable appetite to identify the next king and queen of tennis. And now, there is the added bonus of dealing with the poisonous side effects of social media. Four-time grand slam champion Naomi Osaka openly discussed mental health and body image, and her withdrawal from the French Open was met with severe criticism. Osaka, refusing to kowtow, continues to encourage athletes to speak out against unjust condemnation from the media.
Thanks to the media’s grandeur portrayal of elite athletes, we have this misguided perception of how they should be. We think they are steely warriors with supernatural immunity to pain and anguish. And it is the likes of Osaka, Simone Biles and Serena Williams who have the courage to share with us their personal struggles and the harsh realities of being an elite athlete. As Osaka famously and rightly said: “It’s okay not to be okay.”
While media attention is important otherwise, we will never find out about these incredible sportspeople’s individual quests and achievements. At the end of the day, elite athletes are only humans just like the rest of us. They experience the highs and lows, victories, losses, uncertainties and are learning about life.
Despite my fears, there is still a glimmer of hope because I think parts of the media and fans alike have learnt from Osaka. We shouldn’t be judgmental as young athletes are going through hellish trials that we don’t and never will experience. As David Goggins wisely said: “Most people who are criticising and judging haven’t even tried what you fail at.”
So, let’s give Raducanu a break. After all, she’s just a kid who is still trying to find herself.
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