With a confident swat of Maria Sakkari’s volley, tennis star Emma Raducanu gained herself a place in the US Open final.
The 18-year-old, from Bromley, south London, immediately dropped her racquet on the court and clutched her head in disbelief, before breaking out into an enormous grin and laughing.
The crowd knew the significance of the victory and erupted in celebration.
Raducanu was ranked 361st in the world when she burst on to our screens at Wimbledon earlier this summer – a month before receiving her A level results. That meant she had to win qualifying rounds to enter the tournament, instead of being automatically eligible. But now, the teenager has entered the record books as the first qualifier – male or female – to make it to a Grand Slam final.
When she competes against 19-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez on Saturday, she’ll also be the first British woman in a major singles final in 44 years, and the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova in 2004.
She’s had an astonishing run, but it’s her attitude – as much as her tennis prowess – that has really caught the world’s attention. Somehow, she managed to win the match of her career and still look like she was having fun.
Former England cricketer-turned-psychologist Jeremy Snape says he wasn’t surprised to see Raducanu enjoying herself on court.
“A generation ago, the court was the place where players felt the most pressure,” he tells HuffPost UK. “For the modern athlete facing constant scrutiny from the media and social followings, the court is now the only place they can relax. They can regain control, stay in the moment and express their talents – the judgment is parked until later.”
That’s not to say Raducanu’s journey this year has been smooth sailing.
Just two months ago, the teen withdrew from her fourth-round Wimbledon clash with Ajla Tomljanovic after suffering breathing difficulties and dizziness. In a statement, the player spoke of her experience of overwhelm, saying: “I think the whole experience caught up with me.”
When she was later asked what had caused the incident, she replied: “A combination of everything that’s gone on behind the scenes in the past week and an accumulation of the buzz. I think it’s a great learning experience from me going forward and hopefully next time I’ll be better prepared.”
Her honesty – coupled with her commitment to rest, grow and build resilience – has marked Raducanu as part of a new generation of sports stars raising the profile of performance anxiety.
Alongside other young sports stars including Naomi Osaka, Simone Biles and Marcus Rashford, Raducanu is proving you do not need to sacrifice your mental health to find success. Sometimes, success means taking a break, not raising a trophy.
“Emma has courageously shown that to be successful in the modern age we need to balance our match intensity and focus with downtime and space for our mental wellbeing,” says Snape, who hosts the podcast Inside the Mind of Champions. He believes that we can all learn from this.
“It’s about focusing on our impact rather than our busyness,” he says. “Our brains and bodies need to work in cycles of intense focus and recovery – with many people working longer hours than ever, this is a key strategy to maintain our own energy and mental wellbeing.”
How did Raducanu recover so quickly to become the composed player we saw in the semi-finals? The teen has repeatedly credited her team with helping her to get match-ready.
“Honestly the time here in New York has gone so fast. I’ve just been taking care of each day and three weeks later I’m in final. I can’t actually believe it,” she said after Thursday’s match.
“Today I wasn’t thinking about anyone else except for myself. While I have the moment I want to thank my team and the LTA and everyone at home for all their support. Since I’ve been here from the first round of the quallies I’ve had unbelievable support.”
Again, Snape believes we could all benefit from Raducanu’s approach. He describes Raducanu as “acting as a young CEO of her own business,” selecting those who will help her to deliver her best game.
“We can all learn from this and create an advisory board of friends and peers who create the best environment for our success,” he says. “As a leader she’s already demonstrated that she values her mindset as a key part of delivering her best game and now that is paying dividends.”
Born in Toronto but raised in Britain by her parents Renee and Ian, Raducanu also credits her family for giving her confidence and wide-ranging interests.
“My mum comes from a Chinese background, they have very good self-belief,” she recently told British Vogue. “It’s not necessarily about telling everyone how good you are, but it’s about believing it within yourself. I really respect that about the culture.” Meanwhile her dad, who is Romanian, and used to take his daughter dirt racing when she wasn’t at ballet lessons, “is all about being different and not caring what other people may have thought at the time.”
Having a dream of ‘winning’ – whether that’s a tennis tournament or a promotion – can be both an aspirational focus and a burden, says Snape. Surrounding yourself with good people and living in the moment can make all the difference.
“We tend to focus on the consequences of failure and that can emotionally hijack us from the calm, methodical approach needed to play at our best,” says Snape. “She mentioned playing ‘each point at a time’ and that skill is so easy to say, but so hard to do amid the pressure of a semi-final.
“By staying in the moment, we regain control and if we can insulate ourselves from the emotion of the outcome – we play each point to the best of our ability and in time we achieve our dream.”
In praising Raducanu, we must be careful not to put her on an unattainable pedestal. As we saw with Simone Biles at the Tokyo Games, being held up as the nation’s darling of sport can heap pressure on young stars. But as Biles also demonstrated, success takes many forms for this generation – the gymnast said she’ll treasure her bronze medal more than her gold after taking a break for her mental health.
Given the summer she’s had, we’ll be proud of Raducanu whatever the result in the final. As Snape says: “Not only is Emma demonstrating the winning mindset but she’s also doing it with an infectious smile – it’s a thrill to watch.”
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