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Tennis sensation primed for unicorn status

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Emma Raducanu, of Britain, poses outside Arthur Ashe Stadium with the championship trophy after she defeated Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships on Saturday (Photograph by Elise Amendola/AP)

Regular tennis fans got an introduction to 18-year-old Emma Raducanu’s power and personality during her impressive run at Wimbledon this year. But it was her victory at the US Open on Saturday that turned the Toronto-born Briton into one of those athletes who transcends their sport — who you can’t help but watch and want to know more, or even pick up a racket. Get ready for Emma Raducanu, Inc.

Emma Raducanu, of Britain, poses outside Arthur Ashe Stadium with the championship trophy after she defeated Leylah Fernandez, of Canada, in the women's singles final of the US Open tennis championships on Saturday (Photograph by Elise Amendola/AP)

How big is this win? I ask Michel Masquelier, former chairman of IMG Media, part of the global sports management giant. “It’s as good as it gets,” he says. “Tennis is a genuinely international sport, but it’s also an individual sport so any individual who shines on that stage is instantly recognisable. You see the face of the athlete more than in football, Formula 1 or golf.”

Alongside her championship title, Raducanu has other force multipliers for propelling celebrity and commercial success. There’s her international reputation: born to a Chinese mother and a Romanian father, she was raised in Britain and shot to fame in the US. There’s her youth and the enormity of the records she has broken: she is the first player, male or female, ever to win a grand slam from the qualifying rounds. She did it without dropping a set.

Then there was the spectacular finals performance; the parents who couldn’t be there; the side story of a former British star-turned-commentator, Tim Henman, whose support spurred her on. And don’t forget her spontaneous likeability, the attitude that says “bring it on”.

All of this makes Emma Raducanu a rarity even in elite sport — a unicorn. These figures are different not just because they dominate their sport, but because they alter the landscape around them. But as unicorns in the tech world know, that’s no easy ride. Potential that huge, growth that fast and adulation that fervent can be tricky to sustain and manage.

It is hard to overstate the impact she has had in Britain, a country with a fierce sporting culture that craves and cradles a champion. Amazon Prime had the licensing rights to the US Open, but Channel 4 — state-owned, but largely commercially funded — rushed to secure last-minute sub-licensing rights from Prime Video late on Friday night, giving it a whopping 9.2 million viewers for the match. That was 48 per cent of the country’s 16 to 34-year-olds watching TV.

With global sponsorship spending estimated at about $65.8 billion a year, apparel sales, TV deals and more, the monetisation opportunities will be enormous, particularly if Raducanu fulfils her promise in attracting more viewers and players to the world of women’s tennis. This is a huge opportunity for the Women’s Tennis Association.

“In 35 years in the industry, I would have to go back to the days of Tiger Woods to think of something similar,” says Masquelier, who has just published a motivational book based on his experiences. Woods was also a unicorn, not just because of his sublime golf strokes but because his poise, personality and multi-ethnic background brought new audiences, sponsorship and players into golf.

Already, it is hard to imagine the women’s tour without Raducanu. The season-ending WTA Finals take place in Guadalajara, Mexico, in November. Only the top eight players in the world qualify. Raducanu is now ranked 23rd — a rise of 127 places from a few weeks back. If she doesn’t manage to work her way into the top eight, how much attention will it attract? How many non-tennis fans will tune in?

Raducanu, and others in her generation, including another star, 19-year-old finalist Leylah Fernandez, could be with us a while, provided they can avoid injury. Serena Williams won her 22nd grand-slam title at Wimbledon at the age of 34; Martina Navratilova won a Wimbledon title at 33 and doubles titles into her mid-forties. With good health, Raducanu can count on at least 15 years of high-level tour competition ahead of her. That’s potentially 60 shots at grand-slam titles and numerous other events.

Unicorns, however, can never stop innovating. Once she has processed the magnitude of her achievement, Raducanu’s goal will be to increase her market share — that is, more big wins and higher rankings — and keep working on her game. And yet the challenge, as with any tech unicorn, is to drive this growth while controlling expenditure. In Raducanu’s case, that means controlling the time and energy she has to dedicate to the many off-court demands that are already flowing in. She will need to learn the power of the word “no”.

The inevitable questions have already begun. How long will it take her to top the world rankings? Where will she play next? Which sponsorship deals will she agree to? Which magazine covers? Which interview shows?

Up to now, Raducanu has seemed impervious to pressure — but she’s human. The annals of tennis, like the world of start-ups, are full of dazzling young stars who lost their spark. The 23-year-old Naomi Osaka’s very public wrestling with mental health concerns, after her dramatic 2018 US Open win, serves as the latest cautionary tale. Raducanu will have to become an adult with the world watching.

There are bound to be bumps in the road. And yet she projects a certain self-assurance that makes many think she’s got this. (Like no 18-year-old does, she gave up her phone during the tournament.) Finally released from an endless string of media obligations to see the sights in New York on Monday, she spotted a giant billboard featuring her own rapt expression as she clinched victory. There’s a halo around her profile; the words “Just do it” hang above the familiar swoosh. She shared it on social media, clearly delighted.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe

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Published September 15, 2021 at 8:00 am (Updated September 14, 2021 at 5:15 pm)

Tennis sensation primed for unicorn status

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