When we look back at 2021, one of the great sporting comeback stories will be that of US Open champion Emma Raducanu.
In July, she was enjoying a good run in front of her home crowd in Wimbledon — a surprise, considering she was just 18 years old and ranked 338th in the world.
However, when she began experiencing stomach cramps and breathing issues in the middle of her fourth-round match against Australian Alja Tomljanovic, she made the decision to withdraw from the competition.
For this, she received ferocious criticism. All the usual suspects, including Piers Morgan and John McEnroe, were on hand to suggest she was too emotional, not mentally strong enough, not able to cope with the pressure. (Likewise, reliable good eggs like Andy Murray, Gary Lineker and Marcus Rashford stood up for her.)
That she turned that experience around and cruised to her first Grand Slam victory just two months later is almost miraculous; indeed, it’s tempting to read it as a rebuke to the criticism she received.
There was a novel feel to the US Open, a sense that we were witnessing the next generation of dominant players. Leylah Fernandez of Canada, the 19-year-old who faced off against Raducanu, knocked out defending champion Naomi Osaka on her route to the final, as well as three-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber.
Raducanu, for her part, beat every opponent in straight sets on her path to victory, including Belinda Bencic, who had just won the gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics.
The New York media had varying takes on this new wave. ‘The joyful teen-agers who have taken over the U.S. Open’ ran a New Yorker headline (you gotta love their commitment to the hyphen). In the same week, the New York Times struck a much more cautionary note in its headline about the tennis prodigies: ‘The teenagers are taking over tennis. That might not end well.’
Perhaps even more so than other elite individual sports, tennis has a high burnout rate. Breaking through at a young age, as Raducanu and Fernandez have, brings extra pressure, as you’re then expected to maintain the same standard for at least the next decade of your career.
The ranking system constantly lets you know where you stand in the scheme of things. Raducanu and Fernandez were hugely refreshing: Their spontaneity, rapport with the crowd, and seemingly happy, confident demeanours on the court. But when you’re a breakthrough player, do you have permission to express yourself in a way that a reigning champion doesn’t?
Will a couple of years on the Grand Slam circuit wear these brilliant young players down, as it has so many others?
The tennis machine has a habit of chewing up young players and spitting them out again. Latvian player Jelena Ostapenko won the French Open in 2017 at just 19, but hasn’t advanced past a first round at a major tournament since. The American Sloane Stephens won the US Open that same year but is no longer inside the world’s top 50 players. There’s a reason Bjorn Borg retired at 26.
Spain’s Paula Badosa and Romania’s Ana Bogdan are just two of the players on the circuit who have recently spoken out about their depression, which stemmed in part from the pressures of the sport. Speaking to the New York Times, Badosa said: “If the head is not ready when the body is, the pressure and the anxiety and depression are going to come.”
Sometimes you see that anxiety unfold in real time. After being beaten by Badosa in the second round at the Tokyo Olympics, 20-year-old Iga Swiatek, winner of last year’s French Open, cried uncontrollably into a towel. And who can forget Naomi Osaka’s recent announcement that she is taking an indefinite break from tennis, explaining that she’s been struggling to find joy in the sport?
As someone who has only ever played team sports, I can’t imagine the pressures that players like Osaka and Badosa are under. There is a psychological safety net in playing a team sport, in that ultimately, the responsibility for winning or losing is shared. Even at that, individual mistakes can haunt you, and there can be the additional guilt of feeling that you let down your teammates. But even if you miss a sitter or let the ball fumble through your hands at a crucial moment, you know that there were other factors in defeat besides your howler.
But there’s no such recourse for the individual sportsperson: The buck starts and stops with them. A recent, fascinating New York Times article by Matthew Futterman, entitled ‘Why does playing tennis make so many pros miserable?’ singles out tennis as being especially psychologically taxing.
Sports like golf can be extremely frustrating and pressurised, the piece argues, but at the end of the day, golfers “walk peaceful, beautiful grounds through a morning or afternoon, a caddie by their side lending advice and providing technical and emotional support”. Athletes are rewarded for coming second or third; being on the podium with a silver or bronze medal is still a triumph in a way that losing a tennis final is not.
The elite tennis player is alone on the court facing down someone who is trying, as Futterman put it, “to pound them into exhaustion and defeat”. We don’t think of tennis as being as adversarial as, say, boxing, but the two sports may have more in common than it appears on the surface.
“Sport is what you do, not who you are.”
That’s a phrase I’ve found useful when struggling with sporting disappointment. But when you’re an elite sportsperson, and sport is all you do, how do you keep from linking your self-esteem to winning or losing?
After bowing out of most of her events at the Tokyo Olympics, US gymnast Simone Biles posted in appreciation of the kind messages she’d received: “The outpouring [of] love & support I’ve received has made me realize I’m more than my accomplishments and gymnastics which I never truly believed before.”
It was sweet and sad and also understandable. Let’s hope that more young sporting stars can come to this same realisation before burnout kicks in.