LONDON — Emma Raducanu was about to enter the arena at the Royal Albert Hall, but first came a speech. Andrew Castle, a former British No. 1 himself, was hosting the long-running Champions Tennis event, and he tried to sum up what had happened since Raducanu last played in London. Even he seemed astounded by it all.
She had made her name at Wimbledon, where she trod a journey from high school student to overnight sensation having won her first three matches to make it to the second week. A retirement against Ajla Tomljanovic ended her hopes there, but then some weeks later came the famed and improbable US Open triumph.
Castle roared at the crowd: “Who are you all here for?” Only one name came back to him, the one that had been chanted at Flushing Meadows and WTA events: “Emma!”
“Just a few weeks ago she was a student,” Castle boomed. “Now she only has one name.”
Raducanu made her way down the steps and onto the court. She had arrived to make her official return to the city she grew up in, at a venue just five miles from Wimbledon, and only a little further from her hometown of Bromley.
It was not, as it happened, a particularly competitive event. It was an exhibition, one in which her opponent, world No. 85 and friend Elena-Gabriela Ruse, twice asked one of the ball boys and girls to stand in for and face the serve of their new idol. Both looked rather starstruck.
But the event always had an air of royalty to it. The venue — the illustrious Royal Albert Hall, which is celebrating its 150th birthday — has set the stage for some of the most defining characters of their generations, from the Beatles’ at the beginning of their power in 1963 and later to just about every iconic entertainment figure you can name. Joining that list is Raducanu, who now sits as a young queen within the British sporting landscape, whose first name is all that needs to be chanted, and who now answers questions about whether she will become the country’s sports star of the year. Everything about Sunday added to the grand sense of arrival on the journey that she has been on since the summer. But it was also a full circle moment of sorts.
In her on-court interview, she said she had previously been to the Champions Tennis event at the age of six, when her father, Ian, took her. She sat in the upper deck “unable to see the players or the ball” and hoped to catch a glimpse of the event’s signature trickster, Mansour Bahrami, hold five balls in one hand.
“It is pretty surreal to play on the same courts that I once watched growing up,” she said.
The event itself is a testament to how far she has come, too. Champions Tennis has been held annually in London since 1997 when John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg went head-to-head in an exhibition years after their last meeting. Now, it only invites back those who reached the sport’s pantheons — players must have once held the world No. 1 ranking, reached a Grand Slam final or achieved success in the Davis Cup. Raducanu, who turned 19 years old earlier this month, is a rare teenager to play the event.
The match again showed Raducanu’s class. She picked apart Ruse in familiar fashion, striking long, punishing groundstrokes from the baseline as her opponent tried to exploit a possible preseason weakness: the dropshot. But the main theme was her homecoming to a crowd that has not seen her since Wimbledon.
At the end of the warmup, a deep male voice broke the silence: “We love you, Emma!” She smiled graciously, while the rest of the crowd chuckled in agreement. Then came another cavalier voice, this time from a little boy in the upper deck of the crowd: “Emma, will you marry me?” This time she was a little more stumped.
“It was amazing to play at home in front of everyone here,” she said. “I felt it straight from the minute I walked out — it was an incredible atmosphere — and I really enjoyed playing here.”
Raducanu’s impact was clear. She told Vogue in a recent interview that, “there wasn’t a female that I was like ‘Wow, I want to be like her.'” And yet on Sunday, there could be few in the crowd who would have been left with that feeling.
As she began her farewell from the court, Raducanu hit signed balls into the crowd, causing a young girl sitting high up to lean as far over the edge as she could. Castle interjected into the microphone and asked her not to be so eager. “Emma will get you a ball,” he said.
And so, Raducanu hit a ball to the kid in the upper deck, who probably couldn’t see much of her or the match that had just been played below.