“She has an all-guns-blazing personality”—on court with Emma Raducanu’s former coach Matt James

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 (Matt James)
(Matt James)

“Grand Slam champion... it’s still bizarre to say out loud,” laughs Matt James, tossing me a tennis ball in a reactions exercise he used to practice regularly with his protégé, Emma Raducanu.

It’s a sunny autumn afternoon at the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton and while Raducanu, 18, prepares for the quarter finals of the Transylvania Open in Romania tonight, James - her coach between the ages of 15 to 17 and now a coach across men’s and women’s tennis at the LTA - has generously agreed to meet me for a (pared-down) training session.

“Go, go, go, go!” he tells me as I try to catch the ball from his hands before it hits the ground. “Faster - we can’t start playing tennis until you catch it,” he reminds me two minutes in. The softly-spoken Cardiff Met alumni and Team GB coach for the Tokyo Olympics is firm but fair, pushing me to lift my feet up and keep my body low, but insisting he’s “not so mean” as to make me serve into the sun.

Later, in an exercise working on my groundstrokes, James tells me he’d bet all his money he can predict what I’m about to do next. “It’s one of the things Emma hates most about me: I can read her like a book,” he says, letting me in on a trick he taught Raducanu on disguising your next move.

Katie Strick meets Matt James for a training session at the LTA (Katie Strick)
Katie Strick meets Matt James for a training session at the LTA (Katie Strick)

For James, this is Raducanu’s “superpower”: unlike most players her age, she has a rare mix of athleticism and brains. “She’s very observational, analytical,”: he explains. And by the end of our session, I have a newfound respect for the 18-year-old’s intelligent game-play. My head feels just as weary my legs are. No wonder the US Open winner smashed her A-levels this summer, too.

For anyone too dazed by Raducanu’s dizzying success to keep track, a recap of her rollercoaster summer: in the few short months since leaving school in June, her ranking has sky-rocketed from 338 to 23 in the world. She reached the fourth round of Wimbledon as an “unknown wildcard” in July, made history at the US Open as the youngest British female to win a Grand Slam in 44 years, and promptly toured the world’s red carpets as an overnight superstar, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and Daniel Craig, seemingly unphased. She’s also signed lucrative deals with luxury fashion brands Tiffany & Co and Dior. Not your average post-A-levels summer, then.

James wasn’t in Raducanu’s supporters box at the US Open, but he’s seen her four or five times since New York (they still hit together regularly and as an ambassador for LTA Youth, this week she revealed that she donated her US Open trophy to the LTA as a “little gift” to say thank you - a sign of James’ central role?).

James is modest and insists his work with Raducanu is “business as usual”. “Excluding her homecoming, it was a very normal two weeks,” he says of her return to the UK after the US Open and how her level-headedness is one of the key features that’s made Raducanu a star. Among the others: her hard work ethic, her “all-guns-blazing personality”, her analytical brain, the way she uses the crowd to her advantage, the fact that she rarely loses once she’s ahead in a match.

I hit James with a string of questions about the teenager’s newfound celeb status - could he believe it when he saw her in the final? Had she changed last time he saw her? Has the global stardom gone to her head? James maintains the teenager hasn’t been phased a bit.

He insists he wasn’t on the edge of his seat during the final because he’s “not that sort of person” (he watched it at home in Surrey with his girlfriend and some friends). And while seeing his former protege’s face on the front pages was surreal, he always knew it was coming. “I spent two years telling people she’s going to be a superstar... now my friends keep asking me if that’s the girl I was always talking about,” he laughs. By the time he saw Raducanu post-US Open, they’d already moved on to improvements and thinking about what’s next.

So what is next? Since winning the US Open, Raducanu has been knocked out in the second round at Indian Wells, won her first ever WTA match (”which puts her achievements at the US Open into a bit of perspective,” says James) and parted ways with her US Open coach, Andrew Richardson, after just a few short months. She says she’s happy coaching herself for the meantime as she doesn’t like to be too “dependent”.

James seems unsurprised by the decision to swap coaches again. “She likes to have a lot of different opinions and a lot of voices,” he tells me during a cone-hitting exercise. “She knows she’s young and she’s just started out - she won’t be deterred by going through a couple of different coaches, she’ll learn from them all.”

With that in mind, James feels particularly lucky to have spent two years with Britain’s newest golden girl. The pair spent 24 months together, travelling the world’s tournaments from Turkey to Tel Aviv. He’s grateful to have his weekends back but will always cherish those intense couple of years: doing squad sessions with Andy Murray, Raducanu winning her first tournament in India, eating chicken pesto sandwiches for three meals a day out there because it was the most reliable food they could find.

I ask what Raducanu was like the first time they met and James says she was “exactly the same” as she is today: even at 15 she had a magic about her. The first time he saw her play was in a match against Canadian teen Leylah Fernandez, 19, her future US Open rival, so watching the pair compete in the final last month felt like coming full circle - and it was tough to watch. “Leila is the nicest person out there” and both were so young, says James. “It was almost like watching a juniors match”.

Talking of coming full circle, James laughs as he tells me about a pact he made with Raducanu a couple of years ago: to sit down in years to come and reflect on her career so far. Back then, she was essentially an “unknown entity”, says James, hoping they stick to that pact. After everything that’s happened since the pair stopped touring together, “it would be funny to sit down for that [reflection] now.”

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