Emma Raducanu and one of the most astonishing breakout years in sport

The first senior grand slam experience of Emma Raducanu’s career played out on court 18 in the quiet west side of the Wimbledon grounds this year. The crowd, not too familiar with the No 338, were drawn to Raducanu only by the flag beside her name. Raducanu faced the Russian Vitalia Diatchenko, the 150-ranked qualifier, and after a tight opening set that went to a tiebreak a soon-to-be-familiar sight unfolded. Raducanu permanently took her place inside the baseline and ruthlessly tore through the second set without the loss of another game.

Considering her total inexperience as a professional, had that one first-round win at Wimbledon ended up being Raducanu’s greatest achievement in 2021, it still would have been an immense success. Coming into Wimbledon, she had earned £29,889 prize money in her young career but her first-round win netted £75,000.

She had made her tour-level debut a few weeks earlier as a wildcard in Nottingham, where she lost in straight sets. Before that she had played 16 tournaments, all in the lower levels of the sport.

Having spent the previous 16 months inactive on the international tours as she focused on her A-levels, Raducanu did not play in 2021 until 18 March. She had no reason to expect she would achieve anything at the top level this year. And yet, that win at Wimbledon would mark the beginning of one of the most startling breakthroughs in recent memory.

After Diatchenko came wins over the former French Open finalist Marketa Vondrusova and Sorana Cirstea, the hype finally rising in the latter match as Raducanu dismantled her seasoned opponent on No 1 Court.

It was the first spectacular glimpse into her all-round talent; her ability to dictate to top opponents with her sweet backhand and early ball-striking, her suffocating return of serve and the natural athleticism that already underpins so much of what people love.

The way her Wimbledon ended, with Raducanu being forced to retire in the fourth round against Ajla Tomljanovic with breathing problems, only highlighted how little experience she had.

Raducanu demonstrated what her game looked like in ideal conditions, but it said little about how she would handle the day-to-day grind. She had never spent an extended period of time competing abroad, an elementary feature of her nomadic profession but one that can be draining and difficult to manage.

Raducanu had assumed it would take time for her to learn the ropes and gain experience, so she opted to work with her former coach, Andrew Richardson, a familiar face who could help her as she learned about life on tour.

What Raducanu achieved at the US Open remains astounding. She said before the tournament that she was so unfamiliar with Flushing Meadows that she had to ask other players for directions just to reach the players’ canteen. Her flights home were booked at the end of the qualifying week, an understandable and realistic precaution for someone who had never competed in an overseas qualifying tournament.

Instead, she won nine matches in a row and she did not drop a single set as she clinched a grand slam title.

After navigating the crowdless qualifying tournament without incident, each time the challenge before her increased in the main draw she stepped up against her experienced foes and dominated more. Her return of serve was untouchable, constantly arresting her opponents with deep, early returns that robbed time away from all.

Her frontrunning ability was tremendous. In back-to-back matches against Sara Sorribes Tormo and Shelby Rogers – conqueror of the top seed, Ashleigh Barty – she tore through 11 games in a row. She led Sorribes Tormo 6-0, 5-0 and match point before conceding one game.

Raducanu did not have had a lick of experience behind her, but she showed her ability to adapt and learn from victories and defeats immediately.

Her trip to the US began with lower-level tournaments in Pittsburgh and Chicago, where she won matches, banked the necessary experience and then carried on. As she marched through the US Open, Raducanu demonstrated her composure and in-match intelligence, making small adjustments throughout.

The crowd responded by supporting her from the beginning and the tournament culminated in an unlikely meeting between two teenagers as Raducanu faced the Canadian Leylah Fernandez, 19, in the youngest grand slam final in more than two decades.

The pair generated so much attention that their final produced higher television ratings in the US than the men’s final between the top two players in the world. In Britain 9.2 million viewers tuned in to Channel 4, which bought the rights from Amazon Prime, as Raducanu became the first qualifier to win a grand slam title in the Open era and the first player to win a major in her second grand slam tournament.

Raducanu’s draw was kind to her and a reflection of a particularly open period in women’s tennis. She played two top-20 opponents in New York and she is still yet to face a top-10 player, although her semi-final opponent, Maria Sakkari, is now ranked No 6. But she left little doubt about her stratospheric level of play by obliterating everyone in her path. She conceded 34 games and nobody managed to win five games against her in a set.

Most players’ lives instantly change when they become grand slam champions, fulfilling a lifelong dream as they definitively move out from the chasing pack and become one of the hunted. But few lives have changed as drastically in such a small space of time as Raducanu’s. She entered the US Open in the qualifying draw and a day after it ended she was an invitee to the Met Gala, where celebrities were seeking her out. She will inevitably be one of the highest earners and most prominent players on the tour for years to come.

Asked recently to describe her year in a word, she shook her head. “A journey,” she said. “That’s the biggest word. If you were to draw a road or a journey it would just not make sense, the trajectory and where I went.”

As reactions to her retirement at Wimbledon and her level predictably dropping after the US Open show, Raducanu will have to grow accustomed to her name being on everyone’s lips. After winning a grand slam tournament before her first WTA tour match win or competing in any three-set match at the top level, she will have to go back and take all of the necessary steps.

The losses to come, inevitable for all, will be as essential to her growth as any further early success.

It has been one of the most astonishing breakout years and her place as the heavy favourite to win BBC’s Sport Personality of the Year is undeniable.