When visiting San Francisco for the first time, many British teens may be drawn to the legendary Golden Gate Bridge, but few will know much about its origins.
Off the tennis court, but also on it, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu is an exception.
While playing a tournament in the city last month, she marveled at the “30s genius” of designer Joseph Baermann Strauss, whose work she had studied at her selective girls’ grammar school in south-east London.
“When I was in Year 8, we learned about the shapes, and the power and all the dynamics of it,” she enthused, explaining that her father, Ian, who has a master’s degree in Structural Engineering, had sparked her interest.
It will serve her well as she has become an overnight icon, helping her stay grounded when the expectations placed on her threaten to become overwhelming
Emma went to Chicago a few days later and didn’t spend her free time lounging on the beach by the lake with her iPhone, like some of her young rivals. Instead, she checked another item off her extensive bucket list: seeing The Bean, Anish Kapoor’s quirky sculpture in Millennium Park.
Her taste in music is equally eclectic and unconventional, she says, with a Spotify playlist ranging from Afro-pop to obscure Taiwanese rap.
Brought to you by her Romanian father and Chinese mother, Renee, the benefit of Emma’s degree shines through when we see her.
Indeed, the eloquent and measured victory speech she delivered on Saturday night (in English) was almost as impressive as her sensational performance.
It will serve her well now that she has become an overnight icon, helping her stay grounded when the expectations placed on her threaten to become overwhelming.
Because, as I well know, wonderful teenage girls and tennis, after 40 years of reporting their trials and tribulations, have not always formed the perfect love match, no matter how promising the early courtship was.
Venus Williams, left, and her sister Serena Williams of the US pose with the trophy after beating Switzerland’s Martina Hingis and Russia’s Anna Kournikova
Tennis prodigy Jennifer Capriati at the Coral Gables police station in Miami in 1994, where the 18-year-old was charged with possession of cannabis
The quest to produce the next Wimbledon prodigy all too often ends disastrously.
Seeing how easily Emma seems to adapt made me think back to the late 1990s, when I became one of the first reporters to meet two sisters whose incredible talent sparked excitement.
Venus Williams was also 18 at the time and Serena 16. It was hoped to gain some insight into how they had risen, almost without a trace, to defeat older and more established stars; and to hear about their upbringing in one of Los Angeles’ toughest suburbs.
I was greeted by two girls who were so reserved and clumsy that they could barely mumble a few words. Avoiding eye contact, they spent an hour giggling like adolescents and sending childish messages to each other by text message, a novelty at the time.
Although I had traveled to Florida to see them, the so-called ‘interview’ could not be published.
Not long after, when I met the girls’ domineering father, Richard, the reason for their immaturity became apparent.
His determination to groom Venus and Serena for greatness was such that he took them out of school as little girls and taught them at home with the help of their mother, Oracene.
Banned from hanging out with other kids (and later from having boyfriends), they spent their formative years in an isolated tennis farm their father had created.
Complete with a practice field where his daughters spent hours hitting balls, and a projector screen where he analyzed the strengths and weaknesses of their rivals, it was an odd place for two teenage girls to be locked up.
Then there was Australian Jelena Dokic, pictured, who has shared how her father Damir beat her with a leather belt, spat in her face and kicked her shins when he noticed she was slipping during training.
Mr Williams was no doubt well-intentioned, and of course, in terms of Grand Slam titles and millions saved, his methods have paid off spectacularly.
But it is through their own admirable efforts that the sisters are now among the most articulate, astute and highly respected women in the sport.
For other teenage prodigies, tennis fame came at a higher price. Take poor Jennifer Capriati. Warmed up by her father, Stefano, who proclaimed her future champion before she was born and encouraged her to crawl through dozens of tennis balls as a baby to get their ‘feel’, she became the youngest girl ever to turn professional, a month before her. 14th birthday.
At 15, when she reached the semifinals of both Wimbledon and the US Open, she was hailed as “the most marketable American girl since Minnie Mouse.”
Like Emma, Capriati was also photogenic. Unlike the girl from Bromley, however, college education was not high on her father’s list of priorities.
In her mid-teens, she rebelled against his strict regime and started smoking cannabis and eating junk food. Shortly after, she was arrested for marijuana possession and shoplifting.
With her career in shambles and her sponsorship deals cancelled, she entered rehab and later revealed how she suffered from body dysmorphism: an aversion to her own physique.
Although she eventually recovered to win the Australian Open and French Open, and had made more than $10 million when she retired in 2004, she had only reached a fraction of her potential.
The same can be said of Mary Pierce, the Canadian-French player dubbed “The Body” for her enviable figure, who was chased around the tennis circuit from an early age as an ominous show pony by her father, Jim. “Kill that bastard, Mary,” the tyrannical Pierce would yell from the stands, and woe betide her if she lost.
He told me the same thing, without apology, when I met him. Pierce didn’t escape his clutches until she was in her twenties, when she issued a restraining order against him and deployed bodyguards to make sure he obeyed.
Then there was Australian Jelena Dokic, who has shared how her father Damir beat her with a leather belt, spit in her face and kicked her shins when he noticed she was slipping during training. And I could go on.
Some may find it premature to hark back to these grim tales as we celebrate the greatest achievement of a female British tennis player. Still, they serve to highlight what a wonderful job her family has done.
Ian and Renee, who work in finance, undoubtedly had ambitions for their only daughter. Emma said the same herself in a recent interview, adding that they weren’t given to extravagant celebrations if she did it right.
Still, her parents intelligently nurtured her talents, encouraging her to try a variety of activities as a child, from golf to motocross, and putting her education at the forefront.
Outside the tennis court, but also on it, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu is the exception
They also broadened her cultural and linguistic horizons by ensuring that she kept in regular contact with her relatives in China and Romania.
Yesterday, the family’s former neighbor in Bromley, 83-year-old Margaret Panayioutou, praised the way they raised her.
“They idolized Emma, and they were kind to her,” said Margaret, who would watch father and daughter play tennis over a makeshift net in a nearby parking lot.
“Ian and Renee were obviously very well brought up and very well educated themselves, and they passed that on to Emma. They’ve done extremely well in life since moving here (from Canada when Emma was two), they’re hard workers and they’ve clearly passed it on.”
They clearly have; and as the multimillion-pound flattery, titles and deals roll in, we can bet her enthusiasm for structural engineering and obscure Taiwanese music won’t wane.