Six months ago you’d never heard of Emma Raducanu. Now, the 18-year-old tennis champion has just been crowned the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year - and no wonder.
Raducanu’s performance at the US Open this summer made history. And then some. Since beating 19-year-old Leylah Fernandez in the final in September, the teenager from Bromley has overtaken Johanna Konta as British number one and broken records as the youngest woman to win a Grand Slam since Maria Sharapova won Wimbledon in 2004 at 17, and - more impressively - the first player to break through three qualifying rounds of a grand slam before winning the entire tournament - without losing a single set. Not bad for an A-Level student fresh from her sixth form prom and rated as a 400-1 outsider in the tennis rankings before this summer.
But Britain’s new tennis darling hasn’t let her extraordinary victory go to her head. “No! What? It’s changed to an M now, not a K!” she told reporters following the US Open on noticing her Instagram following had skyrocketed. “That’s incredible. I can’t believe it. I got an M! Wow.”
Since then she’s said she wants to frame the Queen’s letter, remained charmingly humble about her £1.8 million prize money (“I have been telling myself before each match: ‘If you win, you can buy yourself another pair of AirPods’.”) and gave a XXX speech from her quarantine hotel room at last night’s BBC Spoty awards ceremony. “I’m really happy with this, I’ve watched Sports Personality of the Year growing up and it’s an honour to be among those past winners,” she said, holding the award up for the camera. “I’m happy for British tennis as well, and that we’ve managed to get this award...again!”
Naturally, the headlines over recent months have painted the picture of a remarkable young sporting star who is destined for greatness. She has been called an “inspiration”, a “celestial talent”, and celebrity PR gurus are already tipping her to be Britain’s first billion-dollar sports star.
But what else do we know about tennis’ new golden girl? From famous friends to her surprising hobbies, these are 10 things you probably didn’t know about this year’s worthy Spoty winner.
She was born in Toronto
Her father, Ian, might be from Romania and her mother, Renee, might be Chinese, but Raducanu has Canadian heritage too. She was born in Toronto in November 2002 before moving to London two years later - the Canadian city is still listed as one of four cities in her Twitter bio, alongside London, Bucharest and Shenyang.
The 18-year-old grew up in Britain but is clearly proud of her multicultural roots. According to BBC Sport, she is “quite capable” of speaking Mandarin and watches Taiwanese TV.
She is said to speak Mandarin with her mother at home and visits her family in Bucharest a few times a year. “I love the food, to be honest,” she said recently in an interview. “I mean, the food is unbelievable. And my grandma’s cooking is also something special. I do have ties to Bucharest.”
She was shy growing up
Confident. Poised. Determined. These are some of words that have been used to describe Raducanu’s performance in the US Open final this weekend - but it wasn’t always that way.
According to the tennis star herself, she was “a shy little girl who didn’t talk much at all” growing up. But sport and “having to be bold on court” taught her to be more fearless and outgoing. “It’s given me inner strength,” she told Vogue in this month’s issue.
She reportedly began hitting balls with her father at the age of four and was quickly spotted by a passing tennis coach and Bjorn Borg’s practice partner, Richard Whichello, who described her as “unusually exceptional”.
Now, Raducanu has revealed that if she wasn’t a tennis player she would like to be a lawyer. “I like arguing back a lot and talking back a little bit,” she told the LTA following her win in New York - quite the change from her shy younger self.
She was once the British junior number one
The world might not have heard her name until this summer but Raducanu certainly didn’t come from nowhere.
— LTA (@the_LTA) March 30, 2014
Within tennis circles, her success has been a long time coming - she won the LTA Winter Nationals in Yorkshire at the age of nine and reached the semi-finals of the LTA 10 & Under Clay Court Tournament a few months later.
At the age of ten, she had her first taste of international success, winning a Tennis Europe 11 & Under event in Bressuire in France. She was picked to represent GB at the age of 11 before winning her first junior IFT title at 13. At 15, she became British junior number one and she is now an LTA Youth Ambassador. Her former coach Matt James credits her “all-guns blazing personality” for her success.
— LTA (@the_LTA) May 21, 2018
She’s a (not-so) secret petrol-head
The description of her physio as her “mechanic” should have given it away: Raducanu might be a new icon in the tennis world, but off the court she is a big fan of Formula 1 and go-karting.
“When I was younger, I was the only girl in my group karting or doing motocross, and I thought it was pretty cool,” she has said. In July, she visited Silverstone to watch Lewis Hamilton win the British Grand Prix and her Instagram grid features old photographs of her on a motocross bike as a child.
For Raducanu, the sports taught her a valuable lesson: to be comfortable as the only girl in a group. “[When I started playing tennis], the whole squad I was in was all boys. It was quite intimidating in the beginning to, you know, get out of my shell and actually begin to really enjoy what I was doing because I was so scared. I’m not sure of what.”
Cars and karts aren’t her only off-court passion. Among the teen’s other hobbies are horse riding, tap dancing, golf, skiing, basketball and football - proven when she was seen cheering England on during Euro 2020 this summer. She even claimed the US Open title was coming ‘home’ after her victory.
She had a relatively normal Gen Z childhood
Her Instagram following might have hit the millions in recent days but Raducanu’s feed bears many of the hallmarks of a normal teenage-hood: selfies with schoolfriends, trips to London and posing in signed leavers’ shirts on the last day of term.
Pictures show her smiling with friends at Camden Lock and at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park on a Christmas visit, and her grid is littered with Gen Z-style Instagrams, from mirror selfies to holiday snaps posing in front of walls of graffiti.
The 18-year-old is clearly comfortable on social media and in a post-final interview she referenced Gen Z rap icon Tinie Tempah in a nod to her age. “You’re even better than your dad thought’, so that was reassurance,” she said. “Tinie Tempah reference there. My dad is definitely very tough to please. But I managed to today.”
In fashion terms, too, Raducanu represents a new generation of sporting heroes. At the glitzy ceremony last night, she didn’t opt for heels with her black sparkly dress. Instead, in true Gen Z style, she paired her strapless gown with white trainers. Read all about why she is set to be the UK’s next major fashion influencer here.
She smashed her A-Levels
If summer 2021 hadn’t been whirlwind enough, Raducanu also had her A-Level exams to contend with alongside training and tournaments - a challenge she hadn’t forgotten following her win in New York. “It’s crazy to think that just three months ago I was in an exams hall and now I’ve been on the biggest court in the world,” the wide-eyed teen told reporters.
It’s not just her sporting performance Raducanu is used to smashing. The sixth former reportedly scored an A* in Maths and an A in Economics this summer - her parents had to phone them through to her in America on results day after being determined to keep her academic options open in case her sporting career didn’t work out. “Renee and Ian have done an unbelievable job to keep her feet firmly on the ground,” her coach Clint Harris said recently.
A-Levels weren’t Raducanu’s first set of impressive academic results. Two years ago she scored three 9s and four 8s in her GCSEs at her school, Newstead Wood, in Orpington, Olympian Dina Asher Smith’s alma mater. “Sometimes Emma did early morning sessions in there and would be in school for 8.45am,” her headteacher Alan Blount told the Times.
“And then she could be back there as soon as school had finished. That made it very easy for her to keep up to speed with both her tennis and her schoolwork.”
She has famous friends
The phrase “overnight celebrity” couldn’t be more apt than in Raducanu’s case. Just four years ago she was posting proud selfies with Roger Federer, calling him the “Goat” (Greatest Of All Time), and just last week she was still posting excited selfies with fans.
— Emma Raducanu (@EmmaRaducanu) September 7, 2021
Now, the cameras have been turned and Raducanu is widely being pipped as the next Goat herself. Lewis Hamilton, Boris Johnson, Ant & Dec, Stephen Fry, Nicola Sturgeon, the Duchess of Cambridge and even The Queen are among the big names to have praised the 18-year-old’s talents, just months after celebrities including Marcus Rashford spoke out in her defence after her Wimbledon exit.
“I was feeling like I let people down, so for him to reassure me like that - I was extremely grateful,” she recently told Vogue of Rashford’s support on Twitter.
Rashford isn’t the only celebrity to reach out during the tournament in SW19. According to reports, Raducano grew close to Strictly Come Dancing star HRVY during her run to the fourth round of Wimbledon in July.
“HRVY watched Emma play at Wimbledon and thought she was stunning, so he decided to get in touch with her,” a source recently told SunSport. “She was really flattered by the attention and they have been swapping messages.”
She likes to celebrate with chocolate
No drunken celebrations for this US Open star: Raducanu recently told interviewers she prefers to toast her win with frozen yoghurt.
“The flavour doesn’t change - it’s chocolate with more chocolate and some chocolate brownie. I’m one of those,” she told reporters in New York. In a recent interview with the LTA, she revealed her other guilty pleasure: dark chocolate and peanut butter. “I take it everywhere,” she said, admitting she “could eat peanut butter with everything.”
She added that she’s “not really a drinker”. “I don’t like it, I’ll stick to chocolate and good food,” she has said, naming Korean BBQ as her favourite food. “In three weeks I haven’t seen one sight. I’ve just been hiding in my room with Uber Eats.”
She was secretly mentored by Tim Henman
We all saw the looks they exchanged during the US Open final. It’s no coincidence: according to reports, tennis veteran Tim Henman, 47, wasn’t just Raducanu’s biggest fan in New York but also a secret mentor.
“It means so much to have Virginia here and also Tim,” she said in New York. “Just to have such British legends and icons for me to follow in their footsteps, it definitely helps and gave me the belief that I could actually do it.”
Henman has called the teenager “outstanding” and memorably almost lost his voice from cheering her on so loudly in the final. Meanwhile Raducanu has called the former US Open semi-finalist an inspiration. Speaking after her semi-final victory, she said: “Tim is honestly such a big inspiration. He has been helping me to treat one point at a time. You can’t get ahead of yourself.”
She’s in line to earn more than Sir Andy Murray
After September’s win, she’s probably safe to order that new pair of AirPods. Or 16,000 pairs, for that matter.
Raducanu was awarded £1.8 million in prize money after this week’s US Open victory. She’ll also receive a bonus from sponsor Nike, and that’s just a taster of her predicted future earnings. According to one sports marketing expert, the 18-year-old could earn more than Sir Andy Murray’s £120m wealth thanks to her Gen Z appeal.
“She is the first Gen Z sporting hero,” marketing guru Mark Borkowski told the i back in summer. “She has elegance, intelligence, and a girl-next-door quality that makes competing look fun. But she also showed her vulnerability at Wimbledon (when breathing difficulties forced her off court).
“With her diverse background she is the perfect face for modern Britain. She will have sponsorship opportunities falling off a tree.”