It’s July 10, 2018, and Emma Raducanu has just beaten Leylah Fernandez in the second round of the Wimbledon juniors.
Three years later, they locked horns once again at Flushing Meadows in New York on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
Raducanu’s meteoric rise to stardom has arguably been one of the most compelling stories of 2021, and she now stands on the brink of history.
After announcing herself on the world stage at Wimbledon, where she reached the last 16 despite entering the tournament ranked 338th in the world., she became the first British woman to win a major final since Virginia Wade in 1977.
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Channel 4’s decision to hurriedly add her US Open final to their Saturday night schedule is perhaps indicative of the attention already being paid to the Kent teenager, who recently put her tennis career on hold to complete her A-levels.
It’s a rise which has perhaps caught many off guard, but Welsh coach Matthew James – who was in attendance on that day back in SW1 three years ago – isn’t remotely surprised by the progress of his former prodigy.
James, who originally hails from Flintshire, has worked with some of the biggest names in the game, including both Andy and Jamie Murray, and was also part of the Team GB set-up at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.
It’s all been part of a highly successful coaching career – a huge positive to emerge from the pain of seeing his own dreams of Grand Slam glory ended at the age of 18 due to injury.
After taking on a coaching role at Millfield School, the 31-year-old worked as a ‘hitter’ during the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, helping the likes of Novak Djokovic and Garbine Muguruza with their pre-match warm-ups.
It was there he was eventually approached by coach Nigel Sears about the possibility of looking after a highly-rated 15-year-old Raducanu.
The pair would end up working together for two years up until last autumn, although James was also part of her team during her sensational Wimbledon adventure.
He admits her progress has been a little surreal, but claims her talents were clear to see from day one.
“I’ve always said that her tennis doesn’t surprise me,” he told Gist Vile hours before the US Open final. “It never does because I have seen it on the practice court.
“Anett Kontaveit, who was ranked something like 30 in the world came over, and Emma would go toe-to-toe with these players in practice.
“So we kind of knew the level was there. It’s just how quick it’s happened in how she’s completely burst through.
“The scorelines on some of them have been the biggest surprise, and to be able to do it physically more than anything. She’s never played nine or 10 matches in a week before, so yeah there are a few big surprises.
“But the actual tennis? That’s not a surprise.”
James believes her ability alone is not the only reason she has managed to capture the hearts of fans around the world, with the youngster’s character and personality often shining through for all to see.
“She’s really relatable,” he adds. “People really enjoy watching her, but are also completely inspired by her focus and her concentration, and being able to really forget losing points and just focus on the next one and that’s what coaches are always trying to hope for.”
As it turns out, the burning sense of determination that has served her so well as a player extends beyond winning tennis matches, with the teenager also just as eager to thrive in the classroom.
The result has been something of a balancing act, with the youngster often having to balance her tennis career with school work, and sacrificing the busy social life that a teenager might normally enjoy on her way to an A-level A* grade in maths and an A in economics (results which she received from her parents over the phone while in America).
“Everyone on the tour will have sacrificed in the same sort of way,” James explains.
“Even if there wasn’t the academic side of it, you do miss out on a lot of things as a player, because it is a 24/7 job.
“You need to look after your sleep. You don’t want to be turning up tired the next day and have a bad practice.
“So you add in the academics on top, but not only that, it’s the way she wants to get on in the academics because she’s so determined to do really well and literally wants to get A*s in every sense of the word.
“That’s where the sacrifice comes in. Trying to do both at a really good level at all times.
“That was quite difficult to manage with her, but that’s why they brought me in really. Someone who could be flexible around her time.
“We built up a weekly schedule to make sure she ticked every box she wanted to.”
It was a match made in heaven, with James himself recognising the importance of academia and the focus it can bring to life on the court.
The pain of ending his playing career at such a young nearly caused James to turn his back on the game, but his time at university helped reinvigorate his love for tennis, and helped lay down the foundations for his coaching career in the process.
“When I finished playing, I sort of fell out of love with the sport. Because I wasn’t at the level needed, I was losing a lot of matches and it wasn’t that enjoyable.
“The transition to the seniors was a massive jump and I wasn’t really good enough. I had to stop due to needing a couple of hip operations and that meant I finished my A-levels and got to go down to university at Cardiff Met, and absolutely loved it.
“I had that balance of tennis and education and the social side I’d sacrificed up until that point.
“I actually finished university loving tennis and wanting to get into it again.”
Her A-levels might be done and dusted, but the balancing act between Raducanu’s life on and off the court is only going to get trickier.
Going from unknown qualifier to US Open winner doesn’t go unnoticed, with the glare of the public eye set to intensify with every success.
The criticism she faced from some high-profile members of the media following her withdrawal from that last-16 tie at Wimbledon offered up a small taste of what life in the spotlight can bring.
Raducanu’s recent Vogue photo shoot is further evidence of her drift into the realm of worldwide celebrity, and mainstream fame can often bring a weight of expectation which simply leaves many struggling to cope.
Naomi Osaka, who’s enjoyed a similarly stunning rise to the top of the game, has publicly opened up on the toll stardom has taken on her mental well-being, often to a somewhat unforgiving media, who sometimes appear unwilling to even begin to understand the levels of pressure facing young female athletes at the top of the food chain.
“You can’t truly prepare until you’re in there,” James says. “The matches, the pressure points and playing in front of a big crowd. You can prepare out of a book or speaking to people as much as you want, but you won’t truly see until a few years down the line, but we’ve tried our best to prepare how best we can.
“We knew she was going to be a good player. She’s gone through the whole British pathway, being around a lot of good people to help with things like that.
“She has access to a psycho-social team at the LTA [Lawn Tennis Association] and the pro-scholarship programme she’s on, she gets a lot of support on things like that, which will help.
“Experiences are probably more helpful. The experience of being at Wimbledon and having the hype from the British public, playing in front of the crowd, all those things are going to make her stronger, and we see that now because she’s done it in style in the last three weeks.”
Depressingly, the climate seems to be particularly unforgiving for female sports stars, particularly in the age of social media, with high-profile players recently opening up on the vile abuse they’ve received simply for daring to venture into the spotlight.
Shelby Rogers, who Raducanu beat in the fourth round to get to the final at Flushing Meadows, said crashing out of the competition would likely mean she’d probably receive “nine million death threats”, and she isn’t alone.
More female players are offering an insight into how horrendous things can be for young women looking to make their way in a game they love, and even Raducanu herself has been targeted.
“Even when she was playing at the lower levels, she was getting messages after losing matches and it’s a big learning curve,” James adds.
“These players are often quite young and what’s sent to them is truly horrendous. Personally, I just don’t understand how anyone can send a message to anyone they want on Twitter. I don’t get why that’s allowed.
“So yes. She does have to look after that side and she was smart. We didn’t really let her on social media. She was parking it for key times, only answering or looking at the important things, not looking at all those messages, which wasn’t an easy thing to do.
“But it’s what’s needed because she’s fully focused. When she’s in tournament mode, she’s focused on winning the next match and she knows she can’t spend hours looking over negative comments.
“It’s an area of the game that many players are probably not aware of until it’s too late and they’re in the public eye.”
Of course, there’s a flipside, with Raducanu’s rise inspiring a host of other youngsters to take up the sport, and she will almost certainly be held up as an example of what can be achieved with the right mix of hard work and attitude.
“She’ll be inspiring so many people now, which is great. Hopefully, she can inspire young girls and coaches on the female side. It’s so great to have a top female player to look up to because the ratio in tennis is flipped slightly in favour of male coaches, male players.
“So it would be nice to get more girls playing, especially in their teenage years, because they tend to drop out at 16, 17.
“Hopefully she inspires a lot of them to keep playing.”
James watched his former pupil’s amazing win from the comfort of his London home. Having returned from working with Team GB in Tokyo, his main focus is now on his new role at the LTA, where he’s responsible for helping to bring forward the next generation of talent.
But he clearly can’t help but feel pride in watching his former apprentice spread her wings.
“I’ve been very lucky since I stopped playing to have had some of the experiences I’ve had,” he adds.
“I probably wasn’t good enough to make inroads anywhere near like these players have done.
“On a personal note, it’s been great to be around some of these big events and big players, and to say that I worked with Emma and played a small part in her journey to where she is now.”