‘A good result would’ve been qualifying’ – Emma Raducanu’s fairtyale in New York

Emma Raducanu returns to New York 12 months on from her unbelievable triumph (ZUMA) (PA Media)
Emma Raducanu returns to New York 12 months on from her unbelievable triumph (ZUMA) (PA Media)

It was not until Iain Bates was walking his daughter to school that he fully appreciated the magnitude of Emma Raducanu’s US Open triumph.

As the head of the women’s game at the Lawn Tennis Association, Bates is an important figure in British tennis but in no way a household name.

When he had headed out to New York to support the British women playing in the year’s final grand slam, he had not expected to serve as hitting partner on tennis’ biggest stage nor be part of a four-man support team who ended up cheering on the champion.

“I don’t think I had any understanding in New York of just how big the story was at home, because you’re doing your job,” said Bates, who sat in Raducanu’s box with coach Andrew Richardson, physio Will Herbert and agent Chris Helliar.

“I remember I was walking my daughter to school the morning after I was back and a dad crossed the road and said, ‘Well done on your work with Emma’. It was like, ‘Oh hang on’. I’d been walking to the school every day for the last five years and nobody had known what I did.”

Raducanu had gone from a standout talent nurtured by the likes of Bates to an overnight sensation thanks to her run to the Wimbledon fourth round, but what eventually transpired would have been deemed impossible when she took her place at Flushing Meadows for the qualifying competition.

“A good result would have been probably qualifying,” Bates told the PA news agency. “That would have backed up her run at Wimbledon.”

I think the real first point where it was, 'OK this is actually really, really special', was when she beat Bencic.

Iain Bates on Emma Raducanu's US Open run

Raducanu won all three qualifying matches in straight sets – her second-round win over Mariam Bolkvadze would prove her closest match of the whole tournament – and then saw off Stefanie Voegele and Zhang Shuai to set up a third-round clash with dogged Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo.

“I think the match a lot of people reflect back on is the one against Sorribes Tormo,” Bates said. “You’re going into the match, you know she’s going to be hard to beat, she’s going to anchor herself behind the baseline and play a lot of balls.

“Can Emma keep her level for the amount of time that’s going to be required to beat her? She had two or three points to win 6-0 6-0. It was extraordinary the level that she played without blinking.”

That clear-minded focus did not waver when Raducanu made her debut on Arthur Ashe – the biggest stadium in tennis – and lost only three games to Shelby Rogers, nor when she faced Olympic champion Belinda Bencic in the quarter-finals.

“I think the real first point where it was, ‘OK this is actually really, really special’, was when she beat Bencic,” Bates said.

 (PA Media)
(PA Media)

“But still, did I ever really think she was going to win it? No. You’re as proud as you can possibly be of the level she’s putting on the court and the way she was dealing with every new challenge that was thrown at her, but the difference between having an amazing run and winning a slam is so monumental.”

Neither Bencic nor Raducanu’s semi-final opponent, Maria Sakkari, dealt well with facing a precocious teenager, and suddenly the British youngster was through to the final, where her former junior rival Leylah Fernandez waited having put together her own incredible run.

For Raducanu to be facing another relative rookie and someone against whom she had a winning record – albeit at junior level – was something of a curveball.

Bates said: “People were talking about Emma being the favourite and you kind of feel, actually, if she doesn’t win this match, it’s going to feel like a disappointment. It was a strange emotion.

“Twelve months on you reflect and you think, ‘Holy smoke’, and every word that you can’t print, what an extraordinary achievement. Hopefully she’ll win more slams, who knows? But even if she doesn’t, what a moment that was, for tennis in our country, for tennis on the global stage.

“You had two extraordinary young female athletes playing brilliant tennis, putting on a brilliant show with an extraordinary outcome.

“Then she was lifting the trophy, you’re on the court, it all just felt surreal. I don’t take for granted the privilege I had in being one of the lucky few in New York to be part of it.”

Someone else who found herself living every moment of the remarkable story was Catherine Whitaker, the lead presenter for Amazon Prime Video.

On the eve of the final it was announced the streaming service would allow Channel 4 to take its feed and broadcast it free-to-air in the UK. A peak audience of nearly 10million people tuned in.

Whitaker said: “I got a call from the senior producer the night before the final letting me know the Channel 4 thing was on the cards.

“It was a very weird thing because your job’s exactly the same, it didn’t change the show at all, but it felt completely different. No-one ever said, ‘Don’t f*** this up’ but I really felt the ‘Don’t f*** this up’ energy, and that was probably largely internally from me.

“It was special. It wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. There was a real feeling of fate and people watching that weren’t tennis fans. I was aware of the pressure and the opportunity of that.”

I'm just so conscious that she's a 19-year-old in a position that nobody else on the planet has ever been in.

TV presenter Catherine Whitaker

The 12 months since have seen Raducanu subjected to constant scrutiny and perhaps inevitably failing to live up to the sky-high expectations as she adjusts to life as a full-time tennis player.

Now she is preparing for another goldfish bowl as she steps out to defend her title, after which she will no doubt hope a little more normality awaits.

Whitaker said: “I feel a bit of a responsibility to almost counteract the vitriol, which I know largely exists on a corner of the internet that there’s just no accounting for, but equally it’s revolting and I’m just so conscious that she’s a 19-year-old in a position that nobody else on the planet has ever been in.

“My job, which I love, is to big it up and tell people why they should care and be excited, and saying downbeat things like, ‘Don’t expect too much’, it’s not sexy stuff is it? There’s no perfect formula but it absolutely is something I’m very conscious of.”