Pre-cut strings and hip-thrusting 200kg: The meticulous approach that paved Emma Raducanu's path to glory

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Pre-cut strings and hip-thrusting 200kg at 16 years old: How Emma Raducanu's meticulous approach paved way to glory
Pre-cut strings and hip-thrusting 200kg at 16 years old: How Emma Raducanu's meticulous approach paved way to glory

Emma Raducanu was eight when her strength-and-conditioning coach set her a challenge. “How many press-ups do you think you can do in 60 seconds?” Raducanu answered with 48 perfectly planted reps while coach Suzanne Williams clicked her stopwatch in disbelief. “No knees, feet on the floor, the flattest back plank body … she just smashed it,” says Williams, who coached Raducanu at the Parklangley club from age seven to 11.

A decade on, Williams watched in similar awe as the precocious child she once knew steamrollered to the US Open title this month, aged just 18. From coolly hitting an ace on championship point, to delivering a message in Mandarin to her hundreds of millions of new fans in China, the Bromley teen is unequivocally the champion of dreams.

Or, as Martina Navratilova put it, after witnessing Raducanu become the first qualifier to win a grand-slam title, “She came out of the box all put together already, no batteries needed – she’s the whole package” – the awestruck tone of an 18-time major champion apparent in every word.

For those who know her best, the shock factor was only in how quickly her success had come. Raducanu had long been primed for this, leaving the adults who played a part in her development speechless many times over the years.

Racket stringer Huw Phillips recalls first meeting Raducanu at a competition in 2016 in Manchester. The only player to arrive with her strings in an envelope, pre-cut, rather than on a reel, she made an instant impression. Phillips says it was indicative of the Raducanu family’s preference to tread a unique path. “Each envelope had hand-written on them: ‘These are the mains, these are the crosses,”’ Phillips recalls. “Even at Wimbledon this year, they’ve been like that.”

It is a meticulous approach to detail for a junior, that has continued into her professional career – and one that makes economic sense. Raducanu’s father used to string her rackets ahead of tournaments and preferred to cut his own lengths. Kids who casually leave behind full reels of racket string are wasting £200 of their parents’ money.

The Raducanus' thriftiness shows a measure of good management, underlining the relatively modest family background in which she was raised.

 Emma Raducanu is reunited with her father Ian as she arrive at her south London home - David Rose
Emma Raducanu is reunited with her father Ian as she arrive at her south London home - David Rose

Last November, Raducanu switched from recreational rackets to a professional model. Phillips was there at the National Tennis Centre, assisting Andy Murray’s assistant coach Mark Petchey during a four-hour session. It was then that he noticed Raducanu’s increasing engagement in the finer, technical, details of her game.

“She was much more on top of [the rackets], she knew what she wanted, working with Petchey on what she was getting from different frames. She was much more in tune with it, which is positive, because you generally find the players that don’t give a monkey’s, then don’t give a monkey’s with other stuff as well. The better players, they know their equipment – Murray knows what strings he has, the string tension, same with [Roger] Federer.”

Phillips says the strings she is using now – “two different kinds of soft Poly” – are perfectly suited to her young body. “She’s been using them for about three or four years, I believe. It’s quite soft on joints. It’s not a stiff polyester that might hurt her shoulder while she’s growing. So, it’s very sensible and she’s stuck with it and, as a combination, it’s very, very nice.”

That strategic bridging of her career from junior to professional is not a new phenomenon in Raducanu’s dizzying trajectory. Beyond the push-ups, Williams had long been preparing Raducanu for the kind of training that would be expected of her a few years down the line, once her body developed. It was this forward planning from Raducanu’s team which, Williams says, gives her an edge.

“Long-term athlete-development models suggest that there are certain windows, where if you don’t prioritise certain training modalities – like speed or strength or co-ordination – you never get them back,” Williams says. “She didn’t miss them, because she has a team making sure that those things are being hit at the right time.”

Emma Raducanu of Great Britain during the Great Britain Fed Cup - Getty Images
Emma Raducanu of Great Britain during the Great Britain Fed Cup - Getty Images

The story goes all the way back to those early days when, as a seven-year-old with her own strength-and-conditioning coach, Williams could already see what made Raducanu stand out. “It took seconds of watching her to say that something was very different – she was quite remarkable,” she says of her first impressions.

“Once I demonstrated something, she just got it straight away – it saved so much development time. We do what we do, but then someone like Emma uses it in a way that no one else has.”

That astonishing strength and power, in a young woman’s body that is strong but slight, has helped to characterise her game, manifesting in the speed of her serves and her agility. It is Gareth Shelbourne, taking the baton from Williams when Raducanu was 12, who looks after that responsibility now.

Shelbourne got her to a stage where she was hip-thrusting 200kg in the gym, aged just 16 – a moment that stopped former British No 1 Heather Watson in her tracks at a 2019 training camp in Miami. “Most of the guys can’t do that,” Watson exclaimed.

Raducanu’s coaching team have been ever-evolving, but always featured her father, Ian. He is said to have introduced a conveyor belt of coaches throughout her teens, all coming and going according to specific shots she was honing at the time.

This constant flux made her less reliant on the guidance of one person or environment – as did continuing to compete in other sports, including motocross and karting. Gaining the advice of a specific expert for each weapon Raducanu has at her disposal also showed an intense attention to detail.

One of her former coaches, Matt James, met Raducanu at 15. All he knew then was that she was the youngest winner of a junior ITF tournament, aged 13. Watching her play the girls tournament at Wimbledon, it was her confidence that struck him. “Nothing fazed her, she thrived on the pressure even at that age,” James told Telegraph Sport in July.

“She had this look and confidence walking onto court – she just believed that she was going to win the match, and you had that feeling as well. I would use the words ‘almost inevitable’, it just felt like she’s going to be a real top player.”

Tennis experts knew it, but even those outside the sport recall a talent so obviously outstanding that they made their own predictions. Rebecca Rodgers, Raducanu’s reception-grade teacher at Bickley Primary School, saw her jaw-dropping talent emerge when a tennis coach joined the class PE session.

“Emma was just on a completely different level to everybody else. She picked up her racket and was just rallying with him. She would always be very good when it comes to sports day, too, she’d win all the races.”

Rodgers went home and told her parents she had a future Wimbledon champion in her class.

During a whirlwind summer, Raducanu’s grounded approach to the chaos around her has been noticeable. In the weeks after taking Wimbledon by storm, as well as accepting invites to the British Grand Prix and Wembley Stadium for the Euros, she took time to visit her former primary school to give out medals on sports day. While she took the flashing lights and red carpets of New York in her stride, her mother, Renee, attended a low-key Kent LTA event, picking up an award on Raducanu’s behalf.

Raducanu – along with the help and support of those around her – will take the reins when it matters. As speculation grows over her potential impact on British tennis, and chatter about her multi-million pound marketability continues to buzz, those who have known her at every stage of her tennis life vouch for her ability to manage the upheaval with the same poise she showed at Flushing Meadows.

“Based on the child that I knew, she’s always had a growth mindset and saw tasks as challenges rather than pressure,” Williams says. This next phase of her journey may seem daunting to the outside world, but as Navratilova so wisely noted, Raducanu has every tool in the box to nail it.

The support acts caught up in New York fairytale

By Uche Amako

Emma Raducanu’s “fairytale of New York” triumph left the nation in a state of bewilderment, euphoria and unbridled joy, but there was no time for two other leading women playing a supporting role in the teenager’s story to take their eyes off the ball.

For Catherine Whitaker, lead presenter of Amazon Prime’s streaming coverage, and Ella Ling, the sole British photographer courtside on Arthur Ashe Stadium, they were not able to get swept up in the occasion, they had a job to deliver.

More than nine million tuned into Channel 4 to watch Raducanu’s historic feat after a last-minute deal with Amazon was struck to share the broadcast of the US Open final. Whitaker was told about the free-to-air agreement at 2am on Saturday morning in a phone call with her executive producer.

Roll on 16 hours and the presenter was embracing Anne Keothavong, the Billie Jean King Cup captain and pundit, in the studio and preparing to help digest Raducanu’s incredulous achievement.

“I was sitting at the desk watching with Anne who was, genuinely, like, a nervous parent,” Whitaker says. “She was rooted to her chair, wouldn’t move. She’d watched all of Emma’s matches from that exact spot.

Amazon Prime Team including presenter Catherine Whitaker (far right) - Amazon
Amazon Prime Team including presenter Catherine Whitaker (far right) - Amazon

“When we were doing the post-show reaction they [the gallery] said, ‘we’ve got a really, really nice shot of Anne watching match point, throw to it when you are ready’. So, I did that and it turned out to be me teetering on high heels that I’m unable to walk in, jogging in for a big, inelegant hug. I am glad, on a very selfish level, that footage exists, because I’m sure I’ll watch it in 20 years’ time to get emotional about it.”

While Whitaker and the studio team had to watch and work from home, Tim Henman played an integral role in Raducanu’s stunning success, sitting courtside in his half-Amazon Prime pundit role, half-surrogate father figure.

Sitting alongside Henman for the final was Ling, who, after a drawn-out process of sorting out the necessary documentation, visas and credentials was granted access to Flushing Meadows.

She was there at the start of Raducanu’s momentous run. Arriving at the practice courts on the eve of the tournament, she watched the 18-year-old going through her training drills.

“I was shocked,” Ling says. “I was the only British photographer out there. So, from that perspective, it was just me sort of stalking her. But as a result, I got some really lovely pictures and she gave me some nice smiles. You could tell she was just so happy to be there, so carefree and innocent.”

Two weeks later, Ling was preparing for the “biggest match of my career” from one of the best seats in the house as she tried to keep her cool under pressure and not let Henman’s restlessness affect her.

Photographer Ella Ling with Tim Henman - Amazon Prime
Photographer Ella Ling with Tim Henman - Amazon Prime

“I knew that I had a big opportunity, being the only one there. So, I felt loads of pressure. And he [Tim] was clearly nervous as well. His legs were moving up and down, he was constantly checking his phone after every point. There was a nervous tension in the air. In a way, that made me relieved because he was so nervous, but then also made me really nervous.”

And what of the match-point moment?

“I was so focused on it. I thought, I cannot ‘f’ this up. I pretty much knew she was going to drop down to her knees, she’d been doing that the whole tournament, after big matches and at Wimbledon, too. Her seat was on the other side of the net, so I knew that I’d probably have to change to the other lens, so I was stressed about that.

“I kept trying to think ahead of what she might do. Would she run over to the players’ box, then you’ve got to be on a different lens again. All these things are going through my mind. it all worked out, she finished right in front of me, and did exactly what I thought.”

Ling’s images of Raducanu celebrating with the trophy in her black cocktail dress were splashed across the front and back pages of nearly all the British newspapers on the Monday after her success.

“I never in a million years thought that was going to happen. As a freelancer, that’s sort of like winning a grand slam.”

For one other woman sitting in the comfort of her living room back home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, Raducanu’s success transported her back to her own showpiece moment. Christine Truman was also 18 when she reached the US Open final in 1959, but says watching the newly crowned major winner was more nerve-racking than her own appearance.

Former tennis player Christine Truman Janes. - Daniel James
Former tennis player Christine Truman Janes. - Daniel James

“The age thing was really relevant for me to someone that age and brought back memories of being 18, a long time ago. Some things you don’t forget, like being in the final of the US Open. It still stands out as one of my highlights,” Truman, 80, says.

“But watching Emma’s final, I was more nervous, than playing my own final 62 years ago. I don’t remember being nervous like that. When you’re doing it yourself, you’re in control. When you’re sitting on the settee watching, you’re on the edge of the seat just wondering how each point will go.

“The final had everything, the highest standards of tennis, a bit of drama at the end and then Emma winning, which was, you know, what we all hoped for, and she did what I didn’t do.”

Truman is yet to meet Raducanu, but has been told that she is keen to catch up. “I was quite impressed with that, because sometimes the young don’t want to think about us oldies,” she says. And who knows, maybe Whitaker and Ling might be there to capture that moment, too.