Emma Raducanu became a media sensation during her unexpected Wimbledon run to the round of 16. Winning the US Open as a qualifier is the biggest unexpected Grand Slam feat I can remember since Boris Becker won Wimbledon as an unseeded player in 1985. It was probably a bigger shock than that even with her 3 wins at Wimbledon. Becker had a game ideally suited for grass and was among the most powerful players on tour despite being 17.
Emma Raducanu is already rich. She is likely to keep getting richer for the next 18 months. She just signed deals with Dior and Tiffany. She is a young player who can reasonably expect to play on tour for the next decade plus. She is a UK citizen. Tennis is popular in the UK. The UK has a strong economy relative to the rest of the world. 3 of the 4 majors are played in English speaking countries and the US and Australia also have strong economies. The kicker is that Emma is fluent in Mandarin Chinese. China’s per capita income is not that of the UK, but the markets in China are coveted by nearly every company on the planet. Thanks to Li Na and and events such as the Shanghai Masters 1000 event, tennis is popular in China. Emma Raducanu can potentially endorse any brand seeking buyers in the UK and China plus other places where Mandarin and English are spoken.
Roger Federer is a billion dollar man at the moment. He can endorse a lot of items for the rest of his life, but social media did not exist when he turned pro. Emma Raducanu may hit the billion dollar mark in endorsement deals before she turns 25. Roger Federer is the richest tennis player ever, but Raducanu has a potential path for taking that title. If Raducanu has a career like Kim Clijsters’ with 4 majors and a stint at #1, she will make nearly unimaginable money in endorsements. If she wins 10 or more majors, she can buy Highclere Castle/Downton Abbey and give J.K. Rowling a loan.
The Perils: Wading into Crazy Expectations and Potentially Unnecessary Distractions
Former great Virginia Wade said some lofty things about Emma Raducanu after she won the US Open. The British press is going to cover every move of her life. Every win, every loss, any social missteps, a dating life, a lack of a dating life, etc. will all be fodder for press coverage. Being a champion from the UK may mean big endorsement payouts, but it will also mean a loss of any sense of privacy. Just look at this piece for the 2013 US Open, British Media …. Let Andy Murray Poop in Peace, for an idea of the intrusive questions that loom. Comments from tennis experts such as Wade along with media that know little about tennis mean that all losses will be scrutinized.
When Jim Courier became #1, I recall reading about him saying no to an invite to appear on David Letterman despite it being his favorite TV show because it would interfere with his training at that point in the season to fly to and from New York. Raducanu stayed in New York to both ring the bell at the New York Stock Exchange and to attend the Met Gala. She flew from New York back to the UK to be welcomed home and to play tennis with royalty. She also attended the opening of the latest James Bond film at Royal Albert Hall. Finally, Raducanu made her way to California to play Indian Wells.
I don’t look at her early loss at Indian Wells as alarming as most first time major winners have a hangover on the court even if they aren’t playing tennis with the Emperor of the Galaxy in between tournaments. Recent highly compensated champions have had more fun off the court than their predecessors might have. For instance, I saw Serena Williams in a re-run of an episode of Law and Order: SVU last month. Maybe Serena acting and Rafa making an appearance in a Shakira video have contributed to their career longevity. Maybe Jim Courier would have done the Letterman Show if he had it to do over again. Still, training to compete at an elite level is taxing and may require a lot of uninterrupted routines.
Psychological Exhaustion is the Enemy
There have been a lot of tennis players who burned out in their youth. Bjorn Borg could have played to age 30 at least. Naomi Osaka is an easy cautionary tale to consider. Japan has a strong economy and loads can be made from endorsements there as tennis is popular in the Land of the Rising Sun. I don’t want to make this comparison the only one though because A. Oaska is far more introverted than Raducanu from what I can tell and B. Osaka is a generational talent while Raducanu’s talent level is hard to fully gauge against the field as of yet. Emma Raducanu is 10-1 in main draw major matches so she might be a generational talent, but there just is not enough information to be sure. Jelena Ostapenko won Roland Garros 2017 and then reached the quarterfinal round of Wimbledon 2017. Ostapenko reached the Wimbledon semifinal round in 2018. These results pointed toward more major titles. As Indian Wells 2021 showed us, Ostapenko is not done and could win more majors, but that 11-1 stretch in major play in 2017 is in the rear view mirror.
Would results such as Ostapenko’s since 2017 be accepted by the British Press? Would a career like Mary Pierce’s or Svetlana Kuznetsova’s be able to unfold if runs at major finals/titles happened every 3-6 years but were not happening consistently? There is a double-edged sword of the marketing power Raducanu has. The attention she will continue to draw will make negative things every pro endures such as losses, set backs, and injuries into national and perhaps international news. Other players have more room to regroup in peace.
I think Raducanu’s extroverted personality is a major plus for facing what lies ahead. Still, the topic of the psyches of top athletes has never gotten more attention than in 2021. Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Naomi Osaka show that life in a fish bowl, even a well funded one, can be exhausting. In this year of listening to athletes speak about mental health, tennis has produced a champion who might sell products to nearly the entire world. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds. Living in a panopticon is nothing I would wish for anyone. One thing is for sure, the world will be watching Emma Raducanu for the near future.