fthen all goes well. In the end, Emma Raducanu’s first superstar was Wimbledon, her first as a champion – or increasingly, for a frenzied Center Court as Em! – could only stretch to three days and two games.
On a chilly June afternoon, the British No. 1 was beaten in two sets by Caroline Garcia of France. And there will be sorrow in such a gentle departure. For Raducanu because she was simply blown away by a stronger opponent, a moment of cold, hard sports reality for a teenager who is only a year into her own elevation from schoolgirl to sporty A-lister and all-around pop celebrity. And also for the All England club, the BBC and the entire Wimbledon industrial complex, which is now hungry for Raducanu, which feasts on its stars and builds its sports hospitality monoliths around them every summer.
Expectations for Raducanu will always be skewed by her precocious success at last year’s US Open, an unrepeatable marvel of willpower, grabbing the moment. The defeat here will no doubt be seized upon by critics, middle-aged men on the internet and anyone willing to scoff at the commercial deals that have followed (Raducanu is the face of Porsche, Evian, Tiffany and Dior; she could, frankly, be the face of many more things).
But Wimbledon embraced Raducanu warmly during her first appearances at Center Court. It is the most important relationship in this place, the one between the audience and the favorite player. It took several summers for Center Court to embrace the angular, youthful Andy Murray – and Murray is now actually the boss of this place, the father of Wimbledon, so entrenched you can imagine him walking around late at night with the lights off , frowning at the gutters as he puts the cat outside.
An hour and 22 minutes into her afternoon session, Raducanu was already serving to save the game. She made a few forehands, slumped a little, and at that moment there was a sudden rolling warm cheer around the seats, with a sense of a wider celebration of this astonishingly impressive 19-year-old, the resourceful of Beckenham. She now has another year to invent herself, to discover what kind of tennis player she will become. But even in defeat, it felt like this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Make no mistake, Wimbledon needs Em. This place felt a little tired this year. What exactly is this event? A summer bloom after the lockdown? Glastonbury gingham? The return of the good times? It felt a little strange in SW19, stripped of ranking points because of a war in Europe, teeming with Covid at the edges.
Wimbledon is about excess, about consumption, about sinking your teeth into the summer and feasting on its sweetness. The crowds are still impressive. But is anyone really feeling flush these days? At 9:43 a.m. on Emma-and-Andy Day, the hottest ticket in town, the Wimbledon feed tweeted that ground passes were still available. Guard. What?
But then it’s easy to forget that until the late 1990s Wimbledon was a far cry from the current commercial juggernaut. Profits tripled during the great explosion of Timwitry, Henman’s era, where suddenly the painted hordes of jester hats became part of the spectacle, fandom an annual rift party. Henman fever bled in the Murray years and a guts of beloved star players. But those old favorites will be gone in a few years. Wimbledon needs new heroes, a new product.
Enter: Emma. There were screams and screams and screams as she walked out just after 1:00 pm and looked around as she scanned the eaves. Every tennis player has a way of playing on the court, a persona that they try to impose. Raducanu’s version is brusque, neat, pristine, all businesslike.
But she was talking to a good player here. Garcia was number 4 in the world not so long ago. She throws it from the baseline. She can play volleyball and run. She also has obvious physical advantages: long levers, easy power. the kind of basic scaling problems that Raducanu at 5ft 7in will always have to navigate.
A couple of hard, flat drives, a jump over the head, a bravado forehand salvo kicked off the second game and suddenly Raducanu scrambled for a foothold. Center Court frowned. There was a barrage of concerned come-on Emmas, mostly from husky male voices as Garcia took the first set 6-3 in 34 minutes. Raducanu went for a toilet break. Good idea. It was either a toilet break or a bust at this point.
Still, Center Court cooed and cheered and barked with every backlash, every moment of relief. A gruff male voice shouted “Come on champion”. Raducanu stretched back into the air and a man in a gray coat jumped wildly into the air, only to be forced back into his seat by a flight attendant in an Air Force uniform. But Garcia didn’t fold, so she raised her forehand to hammer the lines and close the game.
Afterwards, Raducanu answered questions in the Wimbledon press room with a familiar sense of calm. When asked about the pressure, she laughed and said “I’m 19, I won a slam”, too polite to add the word “duh”. She answered a question in effortless Chinese. She raised her eyebrows slightly, asked what to do next (“Get well!”) and then jumped out of the room. Raducanu now leaves to prepare for the defense of New York. If defeat came here quickly, this is still a story that has only just begun.