Emma Raducanu has become an overnight icon with her US Open win but I’m certain she can avoid the pitfalls of being a teenage tennis star, writes DAVID JONES
Visiting San Francisco for the first time, many British teenagers might gravitate towards the fabled Golden Gate Bridge, but few would know much about its origins.
Away from the tennis court, as well as on it, however, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu is the exception.
While playing a tournament in the city last month, she marvelled at the ‘1930s genius’ of its 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 were learning about the shapes, and the strength, and all the dynamics of it,’ she enthused, explaining that her interest had been stimulated by her father, Ian, who gained a master’s degree in structural engineering.
It will stand her in good stead now she has become an overnight icon, helping to keep her grounded when the expectations placed on her threaten to become overwhelming
Moving on to Chicago a few days later, Emma didn’t spend her downtime lolling on the lakeside beach with her iPhone, like some of her young rivals. Instead she ticked off another item on her extensive ‘bucket-list’: seeing The Bean, the quirky Anish Kapoor sculpture in Millennium Park.
Her musical tastes are similarly eclectic and unconventional, she says, with a Spotify playlist ranging from Afro pop to obscure Taiwanese rap.
Instilled by her Romanian father and Chinese mother, Renee, the advantage of Emma’s rounded education shines through whenever we see her.
Indeed, the eloquent and measured victory speech she delivered (in elocution English) on Saturday night, was almost as impressive as her sensational performance.
It will stand her in good stead now she has become an overnight icon, helping to keep her grounded when the expectations placed on her threaten to become overwhelming.
For, as I well know, having spent 40 years reporting their tribulations, prodigious teenage girls and tennis have not always formed the perfect love-match, no matter how promising the early courtship.
Venus Williams, left, and her sister Serena Williams of the U.S. pose with the trophy after they defeated Martina Hingis of Switzerland and Anna Kournikova of Russia
Tennis prodigy Jennifer Capriati at Coral Gables police station in Miami in 1994, where the 18 year old was charged with possession of cannabis
Pushed beyond the limits of their physical and emotional endurance at an age when they are still developing, the quest to produce the next Wimbledon wunderkind all too often ends disastrously.
Watching the ease with which Emma appears to be adapting, I cast my mind back to the late 1990s, when I became one of the first reporters to meet two sisters whose incredible talent was causing excitement.
Venus Williams was also then 18, and Serena 16. One hoped to gain some insight into how they had risen, almost without trace, to trounce older and more established stars; and to hear about their upbringing in one of the toughest Los Angeles suburbs.
I was greeted by two girls so reticent and awkward that they could barely mumble a few words. Avoiding eye-contact, they spent an hour giggling like adolescents and sending childish messages to one another by text, then a novelty.
Though I had travelled to Florida to see them, the so-called ‘interview’ was unpublishable.
Not long afterwards, when I met the girls’ domineering father, Richard, the reason for their immaturity became clear.
Such was his single-minded determination to groom Venus and Serena for greatness that he had removed them from school when they were little girls, teaching them at home with help from their mother, Oracene.
Forbidden to interact with other children (and later from having boyfriends) they spent their formative years in an isolated tennis ranch of their father’s creation.
Complete with a practice court, where his daughters hit balls for hour upon hour, and a projector-screen on which he analysed their rivals’ strengths and weaknesses, it was a weird place for two adolescent girls to be cloistered.
Then there was the Australian Jelena Dokic, pictured, who has told how her father Damir whipped her with a leather belt, spat in her face, and kicked her shins when he perceived her to be shirking in training
No doubt Mr Williams was well-intentioned, and, of course, in terms of Grand Slam titles and millions banked, his methods have paid off spectacularly.
But it is by their own admirable endeavours that the sisters now rank among the most articulate, astute and highly-respected women in sport.
For other teenage prodigies, tennis fame came at a higher price. Take poor Jennifer Capriati. Hot-housed by her father, Stefano, who proclaimed her a future champion before she was born and would encourage 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 semi-finals of both Wimbledon and the US Open, she was hailed as ‘the most marketable American girl since Minnie Mouse’.
Like Emma, Capriati was photogenic, too. Unlike the girl from Bromley, however, an academic education was not high on her father’s list of priorities.
In her mid-teens she rebelled against his tough regime, and began smoking cannabis and bingeing on junk-food. Soon after she was arrested for possessing marijuana and shoplifting.
With her career in ruins and her sponsorship deals cancelled, she entered rehab, later revealing how she suffered from body dysmorphia: a loathing of her own physique.
Though she eventually recovered to win the Australian and French Opens, and had earned more than $10million when she retired in 2004, she had achieved only a fraction of her potential.
The same might be said of Mary Pierce, the Canadian-French player dubbed ‘The Body’ for her enviable figure, who was hawked around the tennis circuit from an early age like a baleful show-pony by her father, Jim. ‘Kill the ****ing bitch, Mary,’ the tyrannical Pierce would shout from the stands, and woe betide her if she should lose.
He told me as much, unapologetically, when I met him. Pierce only escaped his clutches in her 20s, when she took out a restraining order against him and employed body-guards to ensure he obeyed it.
Then there was the Australian Jelena Dokic, who has told how her father Damir whipped her with a leather belt, spat in her face, and kicked her shins when he perceived her to be shirking in training. And I could go on.
Some might think it untimely to hark back to these grim stories when we are celebrating the greatest achievement by any female British tennis player. Yet they serve to emphasise what a fantastic job her family have done.
Ian and Renee, who work in finance, undoubtedly had ambitions for their only daughter. Emma said as much herself in a recent interview, adding that they were not given to extravagant celebrations when she did well.
Yet her parents nurtured her talents intelligently, encouraging her to try a variety of activities, from golf to motocross as a child, and placing her education at the fore.
Away from the tennis court, as well as on it, however, 18-year-old Emma Raducanu is the exception
They also broadened her cultural and linguistic horizons by ensuring she kept in regular contact with her relatives in China and Romania.
Yesterday, the family’s former next-door neighbour in Bromley, 83-year-old Margaret Panayioutou, praised the way they have raised her.
‘They idolised Emma, and they were lovely with her,’ said Margaret, who would watch father and daughter play tennis over a makeshift net in a nearby car park.
‘Ian and Renee were obviously very well brought-up themselves, and very well-educated, and they have passed that on to Emma. They’ve done extremely well in life since moving here (from Canada, when Emma was two), they are hard-workers and they have obviously passed that on, too.’
Clearly they have; and as the adulation, titles, and multi-million-pound deals roll in, we can feel confident her enthusiasm for structural engineering and obscure Taiwanese music will not wane.
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