Losing AirPods, watched by the Queen and chocolate to celebrate – welcome to the world of Emma Raducanu

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Emma Raducanu with the US Open trophy - Andrew Schwartz/Splash News
Emma Raducanu with the US Open trophy - Andrew Schwartz/Splash News

Night had fallen across Flushing Meadows when Emma Raducanu, playing up to her queen of New York status with relish, swapped her red-and-blue playing garb for a dazzling black cocktail dress. The sartorial switch conjured quite the mood, as she lost herself in the sensation of being the US Open champion. At 18, she was three years shy of legal drinking age in this city, but the headiest of achievements still called for a certain sass. “The day’s going great,” she grinned, a streak of mischief emerging through her customary cool. “How’s yours?”

It was a disarming scene as she finally sat down to reflect on what had happened to her. She began this tournament as the self-effacing London schoolgirl chancing her arm in qualifying, and she ended it the belle of the ball, giving a winner’s interview in her finest evening wear while a half-dozen security guards kept watch to the side.

The experience could easily have overwhelmed her. Instead, she leapt headlong into it, promising to sustain the same devil-may-care abandon that had brought her here. “I’ve got no idea what’s going on, but anything that comes my way I am ready to deal with,” she said. “I don't feel any pressure. I'm still only 18 – I'm just having a free swing. That's how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don't think I should change a thing.”

Long may her insouciance endure. Raducanu’s unstoppable tear to this maiden major title redrew the parameters not just for British sport, but for tennis globally. For a qualifier to become the champion was without parallel in either the men’s or women’s game. That she should do so without conceding a set, without even coming anywhere near a tie-break, truly stretched credulity. The ace that she fired past Canada’s Leylah Fernandez polished off arguably the greatest individual display ever produced by a British athlete.

Emma Raducanu - Losing AirPods, watched by the Queen and chocolate to celebrate – welcome to the world of Emma Raducanu - GETTY IMAGES
Emma Raducanu - Losing AirPods, watched by the Queen and chocolate to celebrate – welcome to the world of Emma Raducanu - GETTY IMAGES

Even she could not help but marvel at the summer that changed everything. From sitting her maths and economics A-levels in Bromley to finding her name lit up in neon across New York? It is, in every sense, the road less travelled. “In the beginning, Arthur Ashe felt extremely big and I think I was a little bit thrown off,” she laughed. “It took a bit of adjusting, but I absolutely love playing in front of that crowd. Even if it’s not always for me, I love hearing the noise. I didn’t look up to the top very often, but when I did I took it all in. I was very surprised by the number of people who wanted to watch me. It’s crazy to think that three months ago, I was in an exam hall. Now I’m on the biggest court in the world.”

For all that she amazed under the lights on Ashe, her performances in the hours that followed were equally eye-catching. At one stage, she conveyed a message of gratitude to the people of Shenyang, the northeastern Chinese city from where her mother Renee originates. Plus, she did it all in fluent Mandarin. She is the type of teenage polymath who can make everybody else feel inadequate.

You half-wondered, watching all this unfold, if this might be the last day of Raducanu’s age of innocence, if she had any grasp on the hurricane of hype her feat would unleash. It was telling how she reacted, for example, to her £1.81 million in prize money. As she was handed her oversized cheque on the podium, she turned back to the team, nonplussed as to what she was supposed to do with it.

There would, she assured, be no material-girl indulgences. “Before my first-round qualifying match, I lost my AirPods three minutes before I was called to court. I was running around looking for them. I have been telling myself before each match, ‘If you win, you can buy yourself another pair of AirPods.’ That has been the running joke.”

Her youth was self-evident as she described, to a small gaggle of British reporters off a basement corridor on Ashe, what this moment meant to her. Never was she so animated as when asked how many Instagram followers she thought she had gained. “Well, yesterday I was on 650,000,” she said, before being shown a phone that revealed she had just broken a million. “No! What? It has changed to an M now, not a K – that’s incredible. I can’t believe it, I got an M. Wow.”

From an A* in maths to an M on social media: life moves fast in Raducanu’s world. But refreshingly, her close confidants, including coach Andrew Richardson and agent Chris Helliar, ensured she did not go straight to scrolling through her countless online plaudits. Even as Marcus Rashford and Gary Lineker clamoured to glad-hand her, she was given the space for a more intimate celebration, as she tried to come to terms with what she had done.

One exception was made for a missive from the Queen, which congratulated Raducanu on her “outstanding” play, while spelling out in unusual detail the monarch’s conviction that “your performance, and that of your opponent Leylah Fernandez, will inspire the next generation of tennis players.” Deferential in her response, she was visibly moved. “I’m incredibly honoured, just blown away. I never in my life thought Her Majesty would watch one of my matches. It’s so special. I’m so grateful to have received that message.”

As her advisors weighed up how many US talk-show invitations to accept, Raducanu could not wait to escape her bubble. Although a young woman of prodigious psychological strength, three weeks of micro-managing every detail in her routine have taken a toll. “In three weeks I haven’t seen one sight,” she said. “I’ve just been hiding in my room with Uber Eats. I’m not really a drinker, I don’t like it. I’ll stick to chocolate. But I want to check out Wall Street, the Twin Towers memorial. We have a lot of good recommendations for food spots, too, so I’m going to try to hit up as many as I can in one day.”

Raducanu is too decent a soul to call out the commentators, John McEnroe chief among them, who openly doubted her resilience when she retired from this year’s Wimbledon with breathing difficulties. But she could hardly disguise her satisfaction at this staggering encore in only her second major appearance. “I personally don’t think it was a mental issue at Wimbledon. Here, I’ve shown a lot of toughness to face adversity. Staying calm and staying in the moment has helped me through. You need a lot of mental strength to do it. I think that says something in itself.”

Emma Raducanu - Losing AirPods, watched by the Queen and chocolate to celebrate – welcome to the world of Emma Raducanu - USA TODAY
Emma Raducanu - Losing AirPods, watched by the Queen and chocolate to celebrate – welcome to the world of Emma Raducanu - USA TODAY

What it says is that Raducanu is the rarest star in the sporting firmament. Quite apart from being a racing certainty for Sports Personality of the Year, she radiates a poise and an inner peace unheard-of at her age. She has elevated the profile of her sport beyond British tennis’ wildest imaginings. She has enraptured a TV audience of over nine million live on Saturday night primetime. But more than all this, she has mapped out here in New York the most extraordinary way to win, combining courage with a humility, grace and style that suggest she is surely built to last.