Emma Raducanu begins beautiful friendship in defeat at Wimbledon

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<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Farewell to all that then. In the end Emma Raducanu’s first superstar Wimbledon, her first as a champion – or increasingly, in front of a fond, rapt Centre Court as Em! – could only stretch to three days and two matches.

On a chilly June afternoon the British No 1 was beaten in straight sets by Caroline Garcia of France. And there will be sadness at such a meek exit. For Raducanu because she was simply blown away by a more powerful opponent, a moment of cold, hard sporting reality for a teenager who is still just a year into her own elevation from schoolgirl to sporting A-lister and all-round pop celebrity. And also for the All England club, the BBC and the entire Wimbledon industrial complex, which has a hunger for Raducanu now, which feasts on its stars, building its sporting-hospitality monoliths around them every summer.

Related: Emma Raducanu out of Wimbledon after defeat by Caroline Garcia

Expectations for Raducanu will always be warped by her precocious success at the US Open last year, an unrepeatable miracle of will, of taking the moment. Defeat here will no doubt be seized on by critics, middle aged men on the internet, and all those who wish to scoff, to wag a finger at the commercial deals that have followed (Raducanu is the face of Porsche, Evian, Tiffany and Dior; she could, frankly, be the face of a whole lot more things).

But Wimbledon embraced Raducanu warmly in her first appearances on Centre Court. It is the key relationship in this place, the one between crowd and favoured player,. It took several summers for Centre Court to embrace the angular, youthful Andy Murray – and Murray is basically the boss of this place now, Wimbledon’s dad, so ingrained you can imagine him going around late at night turning the lights off, frowning up at the gutters as he puts the cat out.

An hour and 22 minutes into her afternoon session Raducanu was already serving to save the match. She netted a couple of forehands, slumped a little, and at that point there was a sudden rolling, warm cheer around the seats, with a sense of a wider celebration of this astonishingly impressive 19-year-old, the Beckenham ingenue. She has another year now to to invent herself, to discover what kind of tennis player she’s going to be. But even in defeat, it felt as thought this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.

Make no mistake, Wimbledon does need Em. This place has felt just a little weary this year. What is this event anyway? A post-lockdown summer bloom? The gingham Glastonbury? The return of the good times? It has felt a little strange in SW19, stripped of ranking points because of a war in Europe, teeming at the edges with Covid.

Wimbledon is about excess, about consumption, about sinking your teeth into the summer and gorging on its sweetness. The crowds are still impressive. But does anyone really feel flush these days? At 9.43am on Emma-and-Andy Day, the hottest ticket in town, the Wimbledon feed Tweeted that there were still ground passes available. Wait. What?

But then it is easy to forget that until the late-1990s Wimbledon was some way off the current commercial juggernaut. Profits tripled during the great explosion of Timwittery, the Age of Henman, where suddenly the face-painted, jester-hatted hordes were part of the spectacle, fandom an annual gorge fest. Henman fever bled into the Murray years, and a gut of beloved star players. But those old favourites will be gone in a few years. Wimbledon needs new heroes, new product.

Enter: Emma. There were shrieks and yelps and cries as she walked out just after 1pm and glanced around, scanning the eaves. Every tennis player has an on court manner, a persona they attempt to impose. Raducanu’s version is brusque, neat, pristine, all business.

But she was up against a proper player here. Garcia was ranked No 4 in the world not so long ago. She wallops it from the baseline. She can volley and hustle. She has obvious physical advantages too: long levers, easy power. the kind of basic scale issues Raducanu, at 5ft 7in will always have to navigate.

Related: John Isner heavy metal game drums Andy Murray out of Wimbledon

A pair of hard, flat drives, a leaping overhead, a bravura forehand volley took the second game, and suddenly Raducanu was scrabbling for a handhold. Centre Court ruffled its brow. There was a barrage of concerned come-on-Emmas, mainly from hoarse male voices as Garcia took the first set 6-3 in 34 minutes. Raducanu went for a toilet break. Good idea. It was, by this point, toilet break or bust.

Still Centre Court cooed and cheered and barked in every strike-back, every moment of relief. A gruff male voice yelled “come on champion”. Raducanu produced a stretching flipped backhand lob and a man in grey jacket leapt up into the air wildly, only to be urged back into his seat by a steward in an air force uniform. But Garcia didn’t fold, winding up her forehand to hammer the lines and close out the match.

Afterwards Raducanu took questions in the Wimbledon press room with a familiar sense of composure. Asked about pressure she laughed and said “I’m 19, I’ve won a slam”, too polite to add the word “duh”. She answered a question in effortless Chinese. She raised her eyebrows just a little, asked what she could possibly do next (“Get better!”) then bounced out of the room. Raducanu will head off now to prepare for the defence of New York . If defeat came quickly here, this is still a story that has barely begun.

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