Emma Raducanu’s gloriously unexpected Wimbledon adventure ended in sadness on Monday as the 18-year-old from Kent was forced to retire from her last-16 match after appearing to hyperventilate on court.
Urged on by a packed Court No 1 crowd, and with millions watching on primetime BBC One, the A-level student started to grimace and hold her stomach during the first set of her match against Ajla Tomljanović, which she lost 4-6.
At the start of the second set, she was increasingly struggling to breathe, which necessitated a medical timeout at 0-3. As she was being treated, the trainer told her to “take a deep breath, you can do it. You’re OK.” Shortly afterwards it was decided Raducanu could not continue.
Nerves may have played their part. And understandably so. A month ago Raducanu had never played a match on the main women’s tour. Now, suddenly, she was centre stage as the youngest British woman to reach the fourth round in the Open era.
Speaking after the match, Tomjlanović said that she wasn’t 100% sure why Raducanu had pulled out but hinted it was related to anxiety. “I have experienced something similar but not to that extent,” she said. “I know that it’s a real thing. I’ve spoken to athletes that have gone through that. It’s not easy.”
John McEnroe, who won Wimbledon three times, said Raducanu’s retirement could stand her in good stead for the future. “Maybe it’s not a shame this has happened right now when she is 18. I played this event for the first time when I was 18 and I was able to qualify and go to the semi-finals and I felt it was overwhelming, the change in my life.
“In a way I was happy I lost. It allowed me to be a kid. I went to college for a year. I was able to get an understanding of what it was going to take to make it on the circuit – what it would entail emotionally, mentally, physically.
“I think seeing those expectations drop a little bit [will] allow her to take a couple of deep breaths.”
Wimbledon confirmed late on Monday evening that Raducanu retired because of breathing difficulties.
Despite this defeat, there was still an overwhelming sense of a new star forming and catching light. Having entered Wimbledon ranked 338 in the world, and with career earnings of just £27,000, Raducanu leaves having catapulted more than 150 places and £182,000 richer.
Marcel Knobil, founder of the Brand Council consultancy, believes this is just the start. “She has so many qualities that brands would love to be associated with,” he said. “She’s multicultural, young and successful. And in a post-Brexit scenario we’re looking for someone to represent pride in the UK. She’s also very attractive, and looks matter.”
He said Raducanu had already secured sponsorship from the sports brands Nike and Wilson and was a solid prospect for the future. “[Fame] can evaporate very quickly, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Especially in a climate where we’ve been so down in the doldrums. We’re looking for an opportunity to raise optimism and brands want to be associated with that.”
Raducanu’s business interests off the court will be represented by Max Eisenbud, one of tennis’s most powerful super agents, who helped the former grand slam champion Maria Sharapova earn up to £20m a year in sponsorships.
Raducanu’s run at these championships did not come as a surprise to Luke Ralph, 18, a schoolfriend who used to train with her at the Bromley tennis centre. He recalled how she would practise her serves by herself in the dark, at 13 years old.
“She was the kind of person who just had that dedication to do anything she could, really,” he said. “We were probably just going home for dinner, wanting to get back and she was just out there training so I think it’s a sign of her character, that determination.”
Those sentiments were echoed by Harry Bushnell, who coached Raducanu at the Parklangley Club in Beckenham, Kent, from when she was six to 11 years old. He said: “I’ve known Emma since she was six. She was in the sessions aimed at the younger children and it was very apparent, very early on, that she stood out.”
Bushnell also paid tribute to her mum, Renee, who is from China, and her dad, Ian, from Romania. “It really is a well-grounded machine. It’s a great combination of Ian, the dad, who is the driving force behind the tennis and the mum who is there saying, ‘you’ve still got to study’, and it’s always worked well.”
Raducanu, who will get the results of her A-levels in maths and economics in the coming weeks, has benefited from being part of the Lawn Tennis Association’s 12 Pro scholarship programme, which helps provide funds and coaching to Britain’s best talent.
LTA coach Matt James told the Guardian that her remarkable run at Wimbledon had been built on even broader foundations. “One of the best things with Emma is that she was exposed to a lot of sports early on,” he said. “She was doing golf, ballet, motocross and horse riding from a very early age. It means that when she’s learning a new skill, she has the ability to pick things up very quickly.”
James also said he expected Raducanu’s success this year to inspire the next wave of British female tennis stars. “She has such a great attitude,” he added.
Those sentiments were echoed by the LTA’s head of women’s tennis, Iain Bates, but he also urged her fans to keep things in perspective. “It was Emma’s first Wimbledon and she only played her first match on tour three weeks ago,” he pointed out. “But all the evidence we have seen this week suggests she has a very bright future.”