Winning and losing

Emma Raducanu is a worthy winner of SPOTY — but will she continue her impressive rise?

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

In the 67-year history of the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Bob Nudd is the one who got away. Or, to use another metaphor from his sport, the one they threw back. Thirty years ago, after winning his second world angling championship, Nudd received 100,000 votes in the competition to decide the year’s top sportsman, but the BBC ruled that he didn’t count as Angling Times had urged its readers to support him. 

Just as the Guardian recently asked its readers to nominate the person of the year and then dropped the idea when too many went for JK Rowling, Nudd would be the wrong winner. Even though competitive angling, which has three million participants in Britain, is listed on the BBC’s sports website, you couldn’t have a fisherman winning. There would be a nasty whiff. Nudd did not carp. He knew his plaice.

Bob Nudd with one of his catches.

There were no such qualms about the latest winner. Emma Raducanu was the shortest odds winner of SPOTY since Andy Murray in 2013 and even though the BBC has refused to reveal the voting figures since 2018 she surely won in a landslide. Her victory in the US Open tennis competition as an 18-year-old, coming through qualifying to become the first British women’s champion since 1968 without dropping a set, was a wonderful fairytale.

What is more, Raducanu actually had a personality, unlike some SPOTY winners. That smile alone will have swung it despite being up against Tom Daley, the nation’s poppet, who knitted his way to Olympic diving success, and the human salmon that is Adam Peaty. She was, and I emphasise this before the “but” comes in, a worthy winner of SPOTY and deserves all the red-carpet invitations and deals with Tiffany and Dior that came her way. When we needed cheering up, she made an unreturnable case.

But. Is she actually all that good? I mean top ten, serial major-winner good, good enough to be put in the waiting room for a damehood (never given to Virginia Wade, by the way, despite winning as many majors as Sir Andy Murray)? Or did she just catch a wonderful break last September, the cards falling her way? She did not have to beat a single top-ten player in New York and the average ranking of her opponents was 52. In the final she beat Leylah Fernandez, another promising teenager, who had helpfully knocked out three of the top five.

For all her faults and double faults on tour, Raducanu may be the sort who rises on the big occasion

Fair enough, you can only play who is in front of you but who do you stick your money on to have the better career, Fernandez or Raducanu? I hope it is the Pride of Orpington, who also had a decent but again not-all-that-challenged run at Wimbledon last year, beating a qualifier then two players ranked in the 40s before retiring in the fourth round while losing to the world number 75, but that Flushing Meadows fortnight aside she has not set courts alight.

Before Wimbledon, her biggest win was against the world No 112. Since the US Open, she has lost in the first round in Linz and Indian Wells to players ranked outside the top 100 and, having beaten two journeywomen in Transylvania, went out there to the world No 55. In her first tournament of 2022, she lost in Sydney 6-0, 6-1 to the world No 13.

Perhaps I will be proved wrong. I really hope so. I write this after she has won her first round match in the Australian Open and by the time you read this she may have gone deep into the tournament. She could even win it. Women’s tennis is very open at the moment. In the past 19 Grand Slams there have been 14 different winners. For all her faults and double faults on tour, Raducanu may be the sort who rises on the big occasion. That would be a nice problem to have.

She certainly looks the part, but so does Zak Crawley, the Kent cricketer, and despite making a double-hundred early in his Test career in 2020, he had the worst ever average by an England opener after his first-innings failure in Sydney earlier this year. After a fifty in the second innings, he was merely third worst. Crawley may yet have the career that his style in the nets suggests, as may Raducanu, but they both may be cursed by over-achieving early, and raising expectations, before they had got many miles in their legs.

Not everyone who soars from nowhere returns to obscurity

Tennis players have won majors as teenagers and gone on to long-term glory but they usually showed promise on tour first. Martina Hingis was only 16 when she won the Australian Open in 1997 but it was her ninth major and she had reached the second week of four of the previous five. Tracy Austin was 16 when she became the youngest US Open champion in 1979 but it was her eighth professional title. Boris Becker was unseeded when he won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old in 1985 but he was still the world No 20, seedings only going up to 16 then.

Raducanu was the first player to reach a Grand Slam final after coming through qualifying but she may end up like Vladimir Voltchkov, a 22-year-old Belarusian, ranked No 237, who got to the semi-finals of Wimbledon in 2000 and never went past the second round of a major again. Or Alexandra Stevenson, who reached the last four at Wimbledon as a teenage qualifier in 1999. The American retired five years later having won only four of her next 23 Grand-Slam matches.

But let me end on an optimistic note. Not everyone who soars from nowhere returns to obscurity. The first player to come through qualifying and reach a grand-slam semi-final was an 18-year-old American who, like Raducanu, had played only one other major before he went to Wimbledon in 1977. If Raducanu goes on to have half the career that John McEnroe enjoyed, we cautious naysayers can happily hang our heads and admit we were wrong.

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