WIMBLEDON, England – The day after British teen Emma Raducanu struggled to control her breath and retired from her fourth round match at Wimbledon, she returned to the BBC for an interview with longtime host Sue Barker.
“I don’t know what caused it,” Raducanu said. “I think it was a combination of everything that happened behind the scenes in the last week, the buildup of excitement, the buzz.”
Raducanu, 18, came for her first main draw appearance at Wimbledon with a wild card and a ranking of 338 and went on to beat three experienced players in two sets before her retirement against Australian Ajla Tomljanovic on Monday when she was under 4-6, 0 -3.
It was scary to see her bring her left hand to her abdomen and chest with obvious concern in the final matches before calling the manager. It was also a reminder of the pressures of elite sport. It’s a true adaptation to play in something as thrilling and potentially overwhelming as Wimbledon, particularly for a young British hope who is suddenly put in the spotlight.
Prosperity is not taken for granted.
“I think when you have the long present goal staring at you, you don’t know how you will react,” said Mark Petchey, the British coach, commentator and former player who worked with Raducanu. “When great champions come out, with their experience, we know it because we have seen them do it over and over again. But someone like Emma was entering a huge void of the unknown, and she didn’t know how she would respond. “
Before Wimbledon, Raducanu said the largest crowd he had played before was “maybe a hundred”. On Monday evening, he was at camp no. 1 under a closed roof with a few thousand roars for her. It was intoxicating but in the end too much, at least on this occasion.
“I think it’s a great learning experience for me to move forward,” he told Barker in his interview. “Now next time I hope to be better prepared.”
Meanwhile, tennis officials can continue to consider how to better serve the well-being of players, especially younger ones. This has been a time of notable reflection in the sport since Naomi Osaka’s retirement from the French Open after a clash with officials over her decision to skip press conferences. When she retired ahead of her second round match, she revealed that she has been dealing with bouts of depression since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018 at the US Open.
The cases of Raducanu and Osaka are not necessarily comparable.
“Emma was a very competitive situation where she suddenly became overwhelming,” said Petchey. “I don’t think Emma will try it personally again, and I think it’s very different from Naomi’s situation, which I think is the most complicated in our sport right now because she’s such a megastar, and we have to sort it out somehow.”
Osaka, who represents Japan but is based in the United States, has not competed since the French Open, skipping Wimbledon to spend time with friends and family back home in California. But this week he confirmed to Japanese broadcaster NHK that he intends to participate in the Tokyo Olympics starting on July 23 and the press conferences that will be part of it, taking into account his mental health.
Re-establishing that dialogue with the public and the media seems like a conciliatory and constructive move after the stall in Paris last month.
His criticism of the existing system, which he finds repetitive and too often negative, and his openness to his mental and emotional issues have also raised awareness in tennis and not just the challenges players face in the spotlight.
The Osaka generation seems more in tune with that struggle and more willing to make concessions. One of the changes is avoiding judgment.
“There’s always a context and always something that’s behind the scenes,” said Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist who works with 20-year-old Polish tennis player Iga Swiatek and other elite athletes. “Even if you have a platform to talk about, it doesn’t mean you always have to use it. I think this is one of the great challenges of life in the internet age for all people, but sport is kind of a magnifying glass. It’s easy to form an opinion, but it’s not always good to do it without context or data, because it could be very damaging ”.
Abramowicz, who was assisting Swiatek long before he broke through to win last year’s French Open, said preparing athletes for what they could face was key rather than helping them pull it off after facing it.
“I also feel that we often prepare athletes for a loss, how to deal with it and deal with it, but we don’t do enough to prepare them for what you do when you reach your peak level and achieve success,” he said.
Abramowicz is encouraged to see more athletes, including tennis stars like Russia’s Daniil Medvedev and Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur at Wimbledon, working openly with sports psychologists and mental coaches.
But he thinks everyone who is in regular contact with players should be better educated on mental health.
“Everyone from stakeholders to coaches, physiotherapists to journalists, to train the players who work for media platforms,” he said. “After Roland Garros, I have already seen the difference to the WTA media staff and how they approach players after a match. They are asking about their well-being and asking if they feel comfortable doing the press after a game and when it might be the best time to do it. So we have changes. “
After Raducanu’s retirement on Monday, John McEnroe, a former player who works as an analyst for the BBC, said he felt bad for her and that it seemed like the experience had been “a little too much, which is understandable”. His comments attracted criticism of Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother, and other to be speculative, coming before Raducanu spoke herself.
Younger and less experienced players deserve the most thoughtful treatment. Putting Raducanu into a prime time television slot on field # 1 may not have been, in hindsight, the wisest or most empathic move. Nor was it reassuring to read a story in the British media on the morning of her fourth round match that predicted that Raducanu could be one of the top three earnings in women’s tennis if she could “keep her form”.
It seemed premature at best, destructive at worst.
“I think it’s irresponsible to enter the realm of the hypothetical so quickly,” Petchey said. “It is unwise not to learn from history as part of the media. Putting all this on the shoulders of an 18-year-old girl is completely useless for her development as a human being. Because basically what you’re doing is setting the bar so high that anything other than being a multiple Grand Slam champion is considered a failure.
Let’s hope Raducanu lost that piece as she and her team did their best to keep it in the moment.
“I haven’t spent that much time on the phone, I checked the news,” he said Tuesday. “We have just been in our bubble, doing our thing, focusing on the process, doing everything in our power and control to prepare for the match ahead.”
It was a match that failed to finish, but the reassuring thing is that the next time he plays at Wimbledon, he will have firsthand knowledge of what to expect.