Forget the notions of Britishness for a moment. Forget that Emma Raducanu may be the first British this, or the only British that. This is greater than any falsely reflected glory, any lilliputian concept of identity.
What Emma Raducanu achieved in New York is unprecedented, anywhere. Unprecedented within these shores, unprecedented beyond. Unprecedented in all countries, all continents, every origin story you can name. It has no predecessor and, one can imagine, no successor in the near future.
She would have been no less surprising if she had jumped out of the crowd, kicked off a pair of high heels and won the Olympic 100 meters, barefoot. There really is no comparable feat to claiming a Grand Slam tennis tournament as teen pre-qualifier. The title of Leicester City 2016? Yes, but since time immemorial, teams have won the league in their first season after promotion.
Emma Raducanu wins US Open is one of the greatest sports achievements ever
The 18-year-old was in 338th place for this summer, but is now a Grand Slam champion
Nobody has done this. No man, no woman. That’s why it’s so much bigger than where Raducanu comes from. It’s where she is that makes her so special.
When Andy Murray won at Flushing Meadows in 2012, it was a British moment. He was the first Briton to win a Grand Slam singles title since 1936, and the first Scotsman since 1896. Others had been there before.
The previous four years had brought winners from Serbia, Spain, Argentina and Switzerland. What Murray did was magnificent given the unique pressure on British players, but he was hardly an outlier in the global game.
Every year someone is US Open champion. But not like Raducanu. Never like Raducanu. “It’s like winning the Grand National – on a cat,” the comedian and columnist Mark Steel wrote of Leicester.
Raducanu has done that; except she jumped six extra hurdles that no one else has had to clear, and then still won the race by 30 lengths.
British teenager Raducanu is the first ever qualifier to win a Grand Slam tournament
There was no set in her 20 played and no tiebreaks. Mariam Bolkvadze of Georgia took her to 7-5 in the second set of her second qualifying round match. Every other set was decided with six winning games. And yes, we have seen that happen.
In 2014, Serena Williams won every set on her way to the US Open title, allowing only 32 games. Raducanu lost 34 in the actual tournament, so was a little less ruthless. In 2014, however, Serena arrived as the reigning champion, the No. 1 seed, holder of 17 Grand Slam titles – 32 if we count her doubles – and four Olympic gold medals.
Raducanu was 338th in the world for Wimbledon in June and 150th on arrival in New York. She initially hoped to win enough prize money to replace the Airpods she lost in the locker room before her first qualifier. Like teenagers do.
So let’s put those rankings in perspective. The 150th team in the English football pyramid at the moment is AFC Telford of the National League North. It takes a little more math to judge who is 338th, but it’s probably Brighouse Town of the Northern League North West Division. Brighouse is based in West Yorkshire and has a record attendance of 1,059, versus Scarborough Athletic.
Raducanu was hoping to win enough prize money to replace the Airpods she lost in the US
The 150th male tennis player in the world is Antoine Hoang, from France, and 338th is Guillermo Garcia-Lopez from Spain. Neither is expected in a Grand Slam final anytime soon. In the men’s golf rankings, America’s Kramer Hickok is at 150 and Australia’s Scott Hend at 338.
This is where the ascent of Raducanu begins; Out of nowhere. She was undoubtedly ahead of the handicapper. Still others will have been, in similar stages of career advancement. And nobody — nobody — accomplished what Raducanu did.
So, now that we have put nationality aside, let’s renounce sports for the time being. What Raducanu has entered is pretty much the realm of the artistic imagination, a world where anything is possible.
There is a scene in the movie Mean Streets where Martin Scorsese introduces us to the character Johnny Boy. In fact, he introduces us just as well to the actor who plays him, the New York icon Robert De Niro. Johnny Boy enters the club, a girl with raven hair on each arm, and Scorsese shoots him in slow motion.
No man or woman has achieved what Raducanu accomplished at New York’s Arthur Ashe Stadium
He’s young, he’s cool, he’s nimble and effortless, the place stops to watch him, to stare and admire him. Scorsese drops the needle on the Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash. That’s Raducanu negotiating in New York this week about feeling at home in the Arthur Ashe Arena on her first visit there.
Of course, Johnny Boy was a madman who had inherited a tragic demise. Raducanu is a teenage girl, still charmingly humble and modest, who sat in a room several months ago to have her study A-level math. Yet the impact is not uneven.
In his 1981 film Scanners, David Cronenberg created the cinema’s first exploding headshot and added 10 minutes to the story. It was the most extraordinarily daring move. After doing that, what did he have in store for the climax? And that’s how we feel when we watch Raducanu. This is chapter one, for heaven’s sake. Where can she go from here?
It’s why the dazzling brilliance of youth outshines even the sport’s biggest comeback stories. Phil Mickelson winning the PGA Championship at age 50 was quite a stunning achievement, arguably the pinnacle of the sporting year so far. Still, we know that, at least as a singles player, it’s his last great scene. Since then, Mickelson’s form hasn’t even been good enough to make the Ryder Cup team an unprecedented big winner in the tournament year.
Only Phil Mickelson to win the PGA Championship at age 50 can be compared to Raducanu
Yet Raducanu can go anywhere, be anything, her journey has only just begun. It was wonderful to see her transformation after the presentation, the nervous competitor who looked around the stadium after every sentence of her speech, as if suddenly afraid to make the right moves.
Later, when she sat on her throne and joined Sweet Caroline’s chorus in the crowd, it was difficult to reconcile this figure with the competitive animal we had just seen, forcing another brave adversary into impotent submission.
She didn’t have to worry about approval, of course. New York loves her as it always loves winners. Later, in a black cocktail dress, wearing her perfect, amazing earrings with the confidence of youth, she wowed again.
“My dad told me, ‘You’re even better than your dad thought,’ so that was reassuring,” she told a swooning audience. “Tinie Tempah reference there,” she added helpfully, for those feeling a little lost. “I’m going to be a bigger star than my mother thought,” he raps on his first single, Pass Out.
Fittingly, it’s an anthem for a man who already knows he’s a shooting star. “Look at all the drama we’ve started,” he says. “Extraordinary – I hope you enjoy the show.”
It could be Raducanu speaking; because from here there will be a show for sure. And we all know the shining star, the new queen who will be at the center of it.