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Mailbag: Where Does Emma Raducanu Go From Here?

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Emma Raducanu wins 2021 U.S. Open women's singles.

Mailbag

Jon, your thoughts on Emma Raducanu. Personally, I’ve never seen anything like this. How good is she? And where does this story go from here, Jon?
Jeff, Brooklyn

• Start with full disclosure. I’m a bit torn on how much attention we ought to be giving Raducanu. I’m hoping this lands on the right side of paternalistic/patronizing, but tennis has provided us with enough data points to suggest we ought to tread carefully here.

On the plus side ... let’s take inventory of this ridiculous story. In midsummer, Raducanu was not among the top 10 British players. She gets a last-minute Wimbledon wild card and makes the most of it, reaching Week 2. Then the occasion, quite understandably, becomes too much and she cannot complete her fourth-round match. In August, she was playing (and not winning) a challenger event in Landisville, Pa. Last week, days after winning the 2021 U.S. Open, she is the new face of Tiffany.

The results are only part of the story. Like Ted Lasso, Raducanu’s story is especially (singularly?) well suited for the times. We are coming out of COVID-19 and could use a happy narrative. In tennis we brace for the end of the Federer-Nadal-Serena era. The U.K., and its perpetual sporting disappointment, is coming off a close-but-not-quite performance in the Euros, tainted by ugly, racial animus. The Olympics were a dud. Here comes a charming, totally unexpected teenaged champion. She reminds us of the magic and unpredictability of sport. Of how intangibles can outstrip data and “expert” opinion. Of how there are multiple paths to success. Of how globalism and multiculturism can unite. (Google: Raducanu + Mandarin.) She reveals herself to be smart and charming and nails that weird alloy of confidence/humility we demand of celebrities.

How good a tennis player is she? It’s been overlooked in this giddy excitement and …who knows? Her recent results don’t speak for themselves; they scream. Her career record is 23–6. She’s already up to No. 22 in the rankings, so she’ll qualify for every event she wants to enter. She’s not dazzling anyone with her power. When Monica Seles and Rafa Nadal and the Williams sisters were teenagers, it was clear they were sui generis, generational talents, equally precocious and ferocious. You wouldn’t say that here. But Raducanu has a large margin of error built into her shots; and her ability to go games upon games without missing a ball will serve her well.

Seems to me the bigger issue is how she deals with it all. These last 90 days must have been unfathomable. She is a global celebrity—fomented, of course, by social media. People who should know better are talking openly about her looks. She is being pegged as a future billionaire because of her international marketability. Human beings are not cut out for this.

Especially when tied to sports where there is a scoreboard to assess—coldly and objectively—success and failure. It’s more than a little ironic that the Week 1 story of the U.S. Open was the defending champion, struggling with her mental health, declaring she was stepping back from competing because tennis and its attendant pressures were overwhelming. A week later, adults are commentating on the Met Gala dress of the new 18-year-old champion.

So … I write from a sort of no-man’s-land. We ought to be toasting this achievement here. By any measure: It’s a wild story. A qualifier beat 10 opponents to win the U.S. Open. She did so with poise and precision and without dropping a set. Just a bonkers sports story. It ought to be celebrated. She ought to be celebrated.

But, bearing in mind the docket of players who have not fulfilled expectations—or struggled with the inevitable slumps—we’re going to be stingy sprinkling hype here. Let’s wait till she wins a few more matches before declaring her “the new Osaka,” much less speculating about her Hall of Fame chances. Naive as this sounds, what say we give her some time? And even some space.

Does Novak's failure to complete the Grand Slam further prove how colossal Steffi Graf's achievement was?
@richtrentham

• I am of two minds here. I am a great admirer of Steffi Graf and will always believe that her unwillingness to remain a public figure after her career has come at a great price to her tennis legacy. But … I also wonder if this isn’t a case study in different eras, different levels of pressure, exposure, media, etc. When Steffi won the Grand Slam in 1988, it was a thing; but it wasn’t a THING. It wasn’t this revenant that trailed her. It wasn’t the source of questions for the entire year. It wasn’t chronicled on social media. (It also wasn’t 33 years since it had last been achieved.) We’ve seen two instances recently of players—towering, usually fearless players—collapse under the weight of history. I would say that Steffi Graf handled the weight in a way that no other player has since, going 28–0 in major singles matches and winning Olympic gold, to boot. But the weight was not as heavy.

Long as we’re here, want to redundantly go down a rabbit hole? Here’s Graf and the 1988 U.S. Open final. Watch match point and the trophy presentation and not how subdued it is w/r/t the Grand Slam. The host, Tony Trabert, literally, informs the crowd that history has been made.

Hope you are well. Instead of going the played-out route and inquiring about the mental weakness of Osaka, how did you enjoy that “Nadalean” mental display by Leylah Fernandez? 19 years old, biggest court in the world, opponent serving for the match....doesn’t blink. Same incredible level of intensity, even when Osaka went walkabout. She claws back and does nothing but stay on the accelerator. How often do you see an underdog playing against a multi major winner begin to get tentative and nervous in a deciding set? Very refreshing to see that Fernandez stayed composed, changed directions on ground shots, hit deft drop shots, attacked the serve of Osaka, served incredibly...and definitely won a supporter in me!
Anthony, Brookline, Mass.

• Devil’s advocacy: It’s easier to play freely as the underdog. But yes, credit to Fernandez. It’s one thing to get hot for a day, score an upset (Osaka) and graffiti your name on a draw. It’s another thing to back that up. Fernandez beat three top-five seeds (plus Kerber, a surefire Hall of Famer) en route to the finals. A) It was interesting to me that her level dropped when she reached the final and was ranked higher than her opponent. B) Despite coming into the match almost 100 spots lower in the rankings, heading into the final, Raducanu was the favorite. Which was remarkable. Which was prescient. And which underscores why sports betting is so perilous. If you think you have information or instinct, you can be assured (you can bet) that it’s already been baked into the market.

In your “50 Parting Thoughts” you write “What an event for Carlos Alcaraz, the Spaniard—and you may have heard this—who is only 18 years old. It’s hard to recall a player so obviously destined for the top 10.”

At 18 years old, Bjorn Borg had already won a French Open and was in the top 10. Boris Becker, at 18, had already won Wimbledon twice and was in the top 10. Andre Agassi was ranked No. 3 in the world at 18. Michael Chang cracked the top 10 at age 17. Even Rafael Nadal cracked the top 10 at 18 and won the French Open at 19. Yes, all of these players are in the Hall of Fame (or will be) but it’s been quite some time since any teenager has been in the top 10. Even Roger Federer didn’t reach the top 10 until after turning 20. What is the difference in development between players of earlier generations, who reached the top 10 so young, and current players who are just getting started at 18 and 19?
Chris Graham

• It’s less about the players than it is the rest of the field. And the sport itself. This has cementized—a new favorite nonword for hardened—into a cliché. But it’s still true: the sport has become so physical … and anything less than body maturity is a barrier to entry. When Tracy Austin won the U.S. Open as a teenager, she weighed 92 pounds.

Jon, I DM'd you this question a few days ago but now realize that I probably should have tweeted it instead. Anyway, here's a modified version for the Mailbag: Raducanu's entire run to the trophy was incredible and unique. But, all things considered, how would you compare it to, say, Ostapenko's win or Swiatek's win?
Ronald

• The month before she won the 2017 French Open, Jelena Ostapenko reached the finals of Charleston, the semis of Prague, and took a set off Garbiñe Muguruza in Rome. (Lindsay Davenport is too modest to gloat, but on the Sunday before the tournament, she pegged Ostapenko as a potential French Open champ.) Before the 2000 French Open, Iga Swiatek—a dominant junior player—had already beaten players on the order of Caroline Wozniacki and was hovering around the top 50. Compare to Raducanu. Before Wimbledon, she wasn’t among the top 10 British players. She only got a main draw wild card as a last-minute concession. She entered the U.S. as the 31st seed … in qualifying! (From the USTA release: “Other notable participants in the qualifying tournament include former Top 10 players Ernests Gulbis of Latvia and Fernando Verdasco from Spain, 2018 US Open quarterfinalist Lesia Tsurenko from Ukraine, and British teenager Emma Raducanu.”) This was—by orders of magnitude—a bigger surprise.

Thoughts on Muguruza calling her opponent unprofessional please! Surprised you did not include this in your 50 Thoughts round-up.
Juan, NYC

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• Sure. For those who missed it … in the fourth round, Barbora Krejčíková was beating Garbiñe.

Muguruza in a taut match between two former major champions. Krejčíková took ill and then took a medical timeout in the second set as Muguruza gained momentum. Krejčíková won 6–3, 7–6 and, as they shook hands (or absently swept palms) at the net, Muguruza chirped, “So unprofessional.”

Some context was/is in order. For one, it was a tight, late match and we give wide latitude to bad behavior in stressful states. This is a misdemeanor, not a felony. But Muguruza was wrong here. And she, too, should have sought context. For one, Krejčíková was clearly unwell and looked as white-as-the-Wimbledon-dress-code. She staggered off the court and couldn’t go to a press conference. Also, Krejčíková is a mid-career player with a fine reputation, who goes about her work—more than 100 matches in 2021 alone—without much drama or look-at-me histrionics. Want to challenge some Ostapenko, where there are abundant data points? Fine. But this opponent deserved better.

Krejčíková would have been within her rights to respond, So uncool. But she was genuinely wounded. Her remarks two days later are tough to read. “I just felt that I got humiliated by a Grand Slam champion, which I’ve never seen.” Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but apart from the personal insult, I wonder whether Krejčíková didn’t feel as though a code among major champs was broken.

Well, if Desirae Krawczyk got a recognition, Joe Salisbury's three Grand Slam titles in 2021 should also be mentioned, right?
@alexskotnikov

• Absolutely. Joe Salisbury—University of Memphis alum—won two mixed titles and the U.S. Open men’s doubles title. And for this he is acknowledged.

One thing that I think flew under the radar was that neither finalist was a "grunter.” They both were pretty quiet, except for a handful of times. That's clearly a sign that the women do NOT need to scream on every swing, and I thought it was actually pretty nice to have a callback to the days when the players weren't making so much noise on every attempt. I will say on the other hand, it seemed like many of the men were making more noise than normal.
Mark

• Again, I have a blind spot—to mix metaphors—for grunting. It’s never really bothered me. I work on the assumption it’s the soundtrack of exertion. But I appreciate that it impacts the enjoyment of many viewers and fans. So, yes, a quiet women’s final is another dimension worth celebrating.

How were foot faults called in the electronic line calling system? I don't recall one foot fault being called at the U.S. Open this year.
Pat Long

• Thanks to the USTA for a hand (foot?) here. Short answer: Foot faults are monitored via camera by the review official dedicated to every court. From chief umpire Jake Garner:

"The baseline and center service line foot faults are monitored by the Review Official using a series of 6 on-court cameras. If the Review Official observes a foot fault they press a button that causes an audible "foot fault" call to be played over the court sound system similar to all the "out" and "fault" calls. When a "foot fault" is called the Chair Umpire enters that into the tablet as well, and according to that data 176 foot faults were called over the three weeks of qualies and main draw."

As it turns out, only two of those 176 were called on Ashe, which may contribute to the lack of visibility, if you will. And I know you will.

I'm not sure what SI's policies are regarding referencing articles from other magazines. If you are permitted to do so, this is a great article bringing a new perspective on the GOAT debate. Your readers might enjoy reading this take.
Ananth

• We’re all for referencing articles from other magazines when merited. And this certainly is. Thanks for sending.

How on earth does Federer still have 3,765 ranking points?
Phyllis in Vermont

• He bought them with ON options. (Remember: These trace back beyond a year. His semifinal points from, say, Australia 2020, are still on the docket. Same for the last title he won, Basel '19.)

• Nick, take us out:

Hi Jon,

Re your reply to my question about underhand serving that you'd love to see some data, here's the two most relevant articles I found via a quick Google search:

Is an underarm serve really that effective for Nick Kyrgios? Maths professor finally reveals the truth

The Underhand Serve: When and Why?

Obviously, some small sample size issues here, but interesting results nonetheless. The most applicable sporting analogy that I could think of is the very occasional use of the eephus pitch in baseball—even though it's not possible to fully disguise an eephus pitch, a hitter who is expecting 90+ mph tends to have a lot of trouble pulling the trigger on a 51-mph pitch like this. Plus, then the hitter has to be cognizant of the threat of a similar outlier pitch in future at bats—in tennis terms, potentially causing extreme overreactions from the opponent like this. Using the underhand serve once also creates the possibility of incorporating an underhand fake into a regular serve motion, like Kyrgios does here (2019: Year of the Underarm Serve) I had never seen this before looking at video clips today, but seems like a fascinating strategic option.

Still, maybe the whole underhand serve discussion is a moot point due to the concerns of high-level players over sportsmanship (although it's clearly allowed in the rulebook—not even a grey area like the time of bathroom breaks between sets) or appearances (i.e., why even the most woeful shooters in the NBA refuse to try the [admittedly lame-looking] underhand "granny" free throw even though the two-hand mechanics are much easier/more repeatable).

More Tennis Coverage:

Mailbag: Medvedev's Celebration and More 2021 U.S. Open Takeaways
• 50 Parting Thoughts From the 2021 U.S. Open
Medvedev's Major Breakthrough Denies Djokovic's GOAT Bid—For Now