Emma Raducanu, the British teenage tennis sensation, had not expected to play in this year’s US Open.
The 18-year-old had booked flights back from New York at the end of the qualification phase two weeks ago, assuming she would not progress to the grand slam tournament’s main stages. Her travel plans were radically altered by an unprecedented run to Saturday’s women’s singles final.
Back in the UK fans began to sit up and notice, leading free-to-air broadcaster Channel 4 to strike a last-minute deal to share live coverage of the final with Amazon Prime Video.
“We’re glad to have worked with Prime Video and pulled out all the stops to get it on air and I’m sure viewers will be thrilled at the prospect of watching Emma in this grand slam final,” said Channel 4’s chief content officer Ian Katz.
“The time here in New York has gone so fast,” Raducanu said on court after her semi-final victory against Maria Sakkari, the 17th seed from Greece, in straight sets on Thursday evening. “I’ve just been taking care of each day and before you know it, three weeks later, I’m in the final and I can’t actually believe it.”
No player, male or female, has previously come through the qualifiers to reach a final of a grand slam, the four annual competitions that are considered the pinnacle of tennis. Ranked 150th in the world before the tournament, she is within reach of becoming the first British woman to win a major tournament since Virginia Wade triumphed at Wimbledon in 1977.
But between her and the trophy stands Canada’s Leylah Fernandez, another teenage surprise package looking to win her first grand slam. Before the tournament Fernandez, who had an even more difficult run to the final, was ranked 73 in the world.
From all her post-match interviews Raducanu, who has yet to lose a set at the US Open, appears to be simply enjoying her continued stay. But sports industry executives said her performances look set to transform her into becoming one of most marketable figures in British sport.
Sustained success through her career could transform her into an international superstar, alongside tennis champions such as Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka, who are among the highest-earning female athletes across all sports.
“All the ingredients are there for her to become the dominant British sportswoman of her era,” said Tim Crow, an independent sports marketing expert.
Raducanu’s shot at sporting glory, and its associated riches, already represent a remarkable rise. Born in Canada to a Romanian father and Chinese mother, she arrived in the UK aged 2 when her parents moved to Bromley, in south-east London.
Earlier this year she completed her A-Levels before playing at Wimbledon, her only previous experience in a grand slam tournament. There she became the youngest British woman to reach the last 16 before being forced to retire during her match because of apparent breathing difficulties.
Raducanu is a product of the Lawn Tennis Association’s talent development scheme launched in 2018, aimed at 16 to 24-year-olds. The sport’s UK governing body’s pro-scholarship programme is designed to consistently produce players who can challenge for the sport’s top prizes.
That is in sharp contrast to former men’s world number one Andy Murray, the last British player to win the US Open, who left his native Scotland aged 15 for private coaching in Spain.
Iain Bates, head of women’s tennis at the LTA, said that despite Raducanu’s rapid rise it was too early to declare the new scholarships a success.
“We had six girls playing in the qualifying here, five of whom are on our pro scholarship programme,” he said from New York. “My work needs to be done in transitioning that group of five, of which Emma was one, into the top 100 [ranked players in the world]. That’s when I think we start to have signs of progress.”
But Bates added that Raducanu would provide inspiration to her peers: “She learns so quickly, she adapts to the speed of the game so quickly, and she’s able to raise her level very quickly. It shows what’s possible and it gives that energy and belief to others that they can also continue to push themselves to achieve higher things.”
In Fernandez, she faces another surprise finalist. The Canadian, who turned 19 on Monday, followed up a shock defeat of defending champion Osaka in the third round with victories over former world number one Angelique Kerber and the US Open’s second seed Aryna Sabalenka.
Raducanu is sure to add to the more than $300,000 in prize money that she has earned in her short career to date. The winner of the US Open will take home $2.5m, with the runner-up due $1.25m.
Raducanu’s only sponsors are sportswear group Nike and racket makers Wilson. Others are sure to seek an association with one of the sport’s brightest prospects.
“Just by renewing her existing deals, Raducanu can expect to be generating revenue in excess of $1m . . . while other brands will no doubt be looking at Raducanu as a potential brand ambassador,” said Conrad Wiacek, head of sport analysis at GlobalData, a research group. “[She] may have become the face of British tennis for the foreseeable future.”
While others think about how to cash in on her success, Raducanu herself has expressed shock at how far she’s come on court in a short time.
“I wanted obviously to be playing grand slams, but I didn’t know how soon that would be,” she said after her semi-final win. “To be in a grand slam final at this stage of my career, I have no words.”
Additional reporting by Murad Ahmed in London and Sara Germano in New York