Then came the predictable backlash, as critics lined up whenever she had the fear of losing, or changing, or profiting from her sudden profile in a sport where the average retirement age is around 27. Even a former world number one. Kim Clijsters made veiled comments in March about players who have ‘sponsors coming in’ and are ‘treated like a princess’. Raducanu called any such talk “unfair.”
The “solitary” image can be viewed in both ways. When things go well, Raducanu looks like a very independent self-taught person. When things don’t, like at the Italian Open this month, where she has retired due to another back injury, she may seem in need of greater guidance.
‘Of course I want to play every chance I have, and probably even when I shouldn’t,’ she said in Rome. ‘But I just need to be sensible. Sometimes I feel like I need a voice to, you know, just hold my hand [and say]”Do this, do this.”
All the on-court disappointments this season have forced Raducanu to be philosophical about life on tour, playing 11 months a year and staying in hotels all over the world. “It’s hard, I didn’t really get started, but I’m not really bothered because I know it’s not always going to be smooth, and I’m just riding the wave of it,” she says.
‘In the beginning everything was, and still is, so new … I’m just learning to be more resilient and honest, and not so much worried about the challenges in my own way.’
Raducanu is pretty far away and dry, with a terribly blasphemous resting face that isn’t given to enthusiasm – off-court, at least. As I watch her throughout the day, she’s generous and polite with everyone from fans to men with megaphones, but seems to carry her new status as a pair of boots that she hasn’t completely broken yet.
All day long she has been getting the star treatment, but she looks most relaxed and happy when she meets a couple of people who knew her in the Old Times. One is her body double for the day, a 24-year-old currently ranked 1,407 in the world. Another is a youth coach who asks about Raducanu’s parents and says everyone is very proud of her. As they chat, some children stand behind, star-studded and mute. Later, she will make their day by giving them signed tennis balls.
Raducanu’s Twitter biography reads: ‘london | toronto | shenyang | bucharest’ – which is about as neat a summary of her background as you might want. Ian and Renee grew up in Bucharest and Shenyang respectively, but lived in Toronto when they had Emma, an only child, and moved to south London when she was two. Raducanu still has a family in Romania and China, as well as many fans, and speaks both Romanian and Mandarin, at least in conversation.
‘My parents’ culture certainly played a big role in my mindset because I was always taught the way they think. They’re really hard to please, so I’ve always had to work hard and have high standards because I always wanted to impress them, ’she says. ‘They explained to me when something wasn’t good enough. That’s a big factor in why I’m here today … they didn’t give me any false confidence. ‘
As a child in Bromley, she would do anything as long as it could involve victory. You name it, she played it, and while Ian and Renee were athletic on weekends, they also worked full time in the City.
“I think they wanted to give me all the skills, and it was also like childcare because they were working, so I was thrown into every extracurricular activity they had.”
As well as encouraging his daughter to try swimming, basketball, riding and tapping, Ian is a motorsporter, so got her behind the wheel. She’s never been happier than when she watches Formula 1 (Lewis Hamilton has been in touch with advice, as someone with ‘the experience of what I’m going through now, as someone young who has just achieved something great’). Emma was a promising card racer for a time, and at nine she got into motocross.
“I was scared when I was a young girl, but found some inner self-confidence to do that, and started loving it,” she says. Often she would be the only girl. – Mom did put me in a ballet with the other girls, but I was a bit of an elephant. I like the emotions [in motor sport], even now I don’t really like to do my nails or things like that. I’d rather watch a race. ‘
Tennis happened by accident. Ian and Renee were playing, and made five-year-old Emma wait in the next court, busy with her bike. – After a while of waiting, little by little I hit a few balls that someone would throw at me. And that’s how I started. I’ve found that I’m better at tennis. ‘