Emma Raducanu and the state of British Tennis

As both a successful player and student, what happens if the streak ends?

Adrian Brune

Oct 8, 2021

The British Women’s №1 banner at the LTA’s National Tennis Centre in October 2021 (left) and in late May 2021 (right) — before the 2021 season’s fortunes. Dan Evan’s British Men’s №1 banner remains intact.

There she was, on a warm(ish) Tuesday night, retreating from Centre Court at Wimbledon, not yet defeated from the tournament but unable to continue due to breathing problems. Months later, there Emma stood again in Arthur Ashe stadium, smiling widely whilst grasping the US Open trophy, calm, cool and collected, not a hint that she didn’t own that cup from the qualifiers to the final.

Since that time, the British public has gone a bit gaga for Emma Raducanu (WTA №22): on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its annual Gala, at the No Time To Die James Bond movie premiere and at several Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) meet-and-greets back home in the UK. And while Raducanu insists that she “didn’t really get too caught up in (her newfound celebrity)” when she makes her first tennis appearance since winning the Open — at this week’s BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, California — all the tennis world will likely be judging whether she has indeed been “training and getting about my business.”

But what exactly is the British way when it comes to tennis and training? As Raducanu is the first English woman in 44 years to win a Grand Slam, with a host of other former Wimbledon wildcards — Johanna Konta (WTA №82; LTA №3), Heather Watson (WTA №57; LTA №2), Harriet Dart (WTA №140; LTA №4), to name a few — gone to the wayside, how has she managed to progress from a courtesy Wimbledon berth to the heights of the tour? The Americans have roughly two routes to the top of the game: college or professional training at one of multitude of academies. A revamped British system — the LTA “Player Pathway,” — although sometimes seemingly more convoluted, was actually designed to simply build from the ground up, not only a new tennis system, but its new star: Emma Raducanu.

The clay courts at the Sundridge Park Tennis Club in Bromley, Southeast London, where current British №1 Emma Raducanu got her start.

Since the lone appearance of Andy Murray as the example of British prowess, the UK has collectively gnashed its teeth over the right way to go about restoring British dominance. The change started in 2014 with Canadian Michael Downey, who came to the LTA speaking of the growth of British tennis in the parks, then the schools, then the clubs, rather than the other-way around. In 2018, his successor, Scott Lloyd — son of David, the legendary Davis Cup captain and fitness-club owner — the LTA devised the “Player Pathway”, which generally provides local training for under-10s, regional training for 10–14 year olds, and at 14, the chance for the best players to attend one of two National Academies run by either Loughborough University or Tennis Scotland at Stirling University.

“We all agree… that there has been too much ‘chopping and changing’ in the past,” Lloyd wrote in a Sky Sports editorial in October 2020. “When I was appointed CEO of the LTA, it is fair to say that there was no strategic vision for developing professional players and as a result we do not have the depth of players that we want to see coming through as the next generation.”

Nonetheless, in England — for better or worse — the tennis system still relies heavily on the local clubs, as well as a coach’s selective eye for competitiveness. A great player can pop up almost anywhere: Dan Evans (ATP №22; LTA №1) in the industrial Midland hub of Birmingham; Watson in the English Channel island Gurnsey; or Dart in the posh Hampstead area of Central London. (Konta came to England from Australia at age 14 and Cameron Norrie from New Zealand at age 16). While Watson left Gurnsey in 2004 to train at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, Evans stayed at the Edgbaston Priory outside Birmingham, Kyle Edmund (ATP №104; LTA №3) started at the David Lloyd Racquet and Fitness Club in Hull and Dart honed her skills at the Cumberland Lawn Tennis Club in Hampstead. Newcomer Liam Brody (ATP №126; LTA №5) also stuck with his hometown club, the Northern Lawn Tennis Club in Greater Manchester.

Raducanu — by far the youngest of the lot and the Lloyd test-case — started playing tennis at age five at the Sundridge Park Tennis Club in Bromley, a suburb of London, which has a nationally recognized youth development program and is a regular stop for highly competitive tournaments. Her talent was spotted early, and Raducanu, now a spokesperson for LTA Youth, went to the LTA’s monthly squad training and then daily training at the Bromley Tennis Centre, before progressing to the LTA’s National Tennis Centre in Roehampton at age 16.

However, much in the manner that the American’s NCAA collegiate system focuses on athletics and academics, Raducanu left her options open, remaining at Newstead Wood, a highly selective girls’ grammar school in Kent. Like most British teenagers, Raducanu took the standardized GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at age 16 in maths and economics and could have left school at 16, but chose to progress to the Advanced-level qualifications (A levels) for placement at a university. She wanted “a great option in case injuries happen, or tennis doesn’t work out.” she told the Daily Mail during her Wimbledon run in July.

The entrance to the LTA’s National Training Centre where the British №1’s in men’s and women’s tennis banners feature prominently.

Pro tennis worked out for Raducanu, something about which Lloyd and the Brits are over-the-moon, as they like to say (because as polite and gentile as the Brits like to seem, they love a champion). But what happens to the legions of other teens whose dreams remain at “county-level champion”? While many American university recruiters come to England for their tennis players, and colleges such as the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) or the University of Virginia (UVA) can, ultimately, produce a Jennifer Brady (WTA №23) or Danielle Collins (WTA №25) to either compete on tour and/or work on Wall Street after graduation, there is not an equivalent for those who aren’t prodigies.

As supportive as the LTA Player Pathway may now seem, for those on the injured or outplayed list, it’s a system that doesn’t “leave no player behind” — ask many of the club pros, who have few career options but to pay large amounts of sterling to gain their LTA-level coaching qualifications. They look to the United States as an example of the more moderate approach to both recapture British tennis power of old and support a more well-rounded individual. It’s a method even Lloyd says has its merits. “We also recognise the role that… US Colleges play in developing players and supporting our pathway,” he told Sky Sports in 2020.

“I understand that even with these options available to young players, people will still say that our resources are too narrowly focused — but elite sport is an incredibly demanding and competitive landscape and there are always going to be difficult decisions to be made in how we allocate our resources at each stage of the pathway.”

As the LTA still shrugs off the traditions of old and attempts to adopt the multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multifaceted generation Z, it has Raducanu to adore, whom even Konta is “watching in awe.”

An electronic billboard cheering on England’s next best hope for greatness, Emma Raducanu, in Southwest London. Raducanu who soared from beyond the top-100 to WTA №22 in less than a month, next competes at California’s BNP Paribas Open.

(A small request: If you enjoy this newsletter — and the photographs — I ask that you subscribe to my Patreon page here. I am awaiting a UK work visa and your small donation goes a long way toward my goal of what the English call “permanent leave to remain” and the Americans call “to stay in the country.”)

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Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune

Adrian Margaret Brune is a native Oklahoman who lives, works, writes, runs and plays competitive tennis in London, UK.

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