COMMENT: Even better than the miracle of Headingley 1981 – Emma Raducanu’s fairytale win is now the greatest British sporting story of them all

There has been a lot of talk in recent days about where Emma Raducanu’s US Open triumph stands in the pantheon of British sporting successes.

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 8:35 am
Emma Raducanu with the US Open trophy. Picture: Michael Nagle/Xinhua/PA Wire.

As I see it, the debate should be concentrating on what is the second best achievement. Because there has never been a story to compare with an 18-year-old qualifier winning a tennis Grand Slam tournament without dropping a set.

Yes, of course our sporting history is littered with extraordinary feats, remarkable achievements, sensational tales of the underdog having their day.

Leicester City winning the Premier League title, Botham’s Ashes (the fabled Headingley Test of 1981 is now second in my personal list), the Olympic hockey gold medals (men 1988, women 2016).

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Other Olympic legends such as Hoy, Kenny (Jason and Laura), Redgrave, Ainslie, Coe, Holmes, Ennis, Torvill & Dean, Thompson and Farah demand inclusion.

And how can we forget our World Cup winners - football (1966), rugby union (2003) and cricket (men’s 2010, 2019, women’s 2017)? None of those sides, though, were a virtual unknown a few months earlier.

Tennis, too, has thrown up some memorable moments worthy of the top table of British sporting achievement - Virginia Wade winning Wimbledon in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee Year of 1977, Andy Murray becoming the first British male since Fred Perry in 1936 to win the men’s event in 2013; even Sue Barker, aged just 20, winning the French Open in 1976 deserves more than a passing mention.

For boxing aficionados, not much will ever beat the emotional night in 1985 when Barry McGuigan united all of Ireland at the height of The Troubles by ending Eusebio Pedroza’s seven-year reign as world featherweight champion.

And how about another glorious Irish memory from the same year, Dennis Taylor coming from 0-7 down to beat Steve Davis on a final frame black ball in the World Snooker Championship final? Like tennis, a sport which fits perfectly into a TV screen provided the ultimate in gripping entertainment.

Armed with all those wonderful memories, how can anyone ever attempt to rationally, logically, choose a number one? Well, it might have been difficult prior to the fairytale of New York; now it’s no contest.

Back in the summer, Raducanu was ranked No 338 in the world. At the beginning of June she made her debut in the main WTA main draw, losing at the Nottingham Open to fellow Brit Harriet Dart. A penny for Harriet’s thoughts last Saturday evening ...

This was just a few months ago, barely 12 weeks. Now everyone knows who Emma Raducanu is; now tennis - places tongue only slightly in cheek - is our new favourite national sport. She entered the US Open ranked No 150 in the world, and won. As of yesterday, Walton Casuals - 13th in the Southern League Premier South, the same division as Gosport Borough - are 150th in the English football pyramid.

Yes, I know comparisons are futile. Walton won’t win the FA Cup this season (they’ll do well to beat Hampton & Richmond in the second qualifying round this weekend). But there is a romance around the top echelons of professional tennis that you never EVER see anywhere else in elite sport.

Raducanu is not the first teenager to win a tennis Grand Slam. Tracy Austin, Monica Seles and Martina Hingis were all 16 when they lifted their first one. Boris Becker won Wimbledon aged just 17 years and 228 days old in 1985, and he’s not even the youngest men’s Grand Slam winner of that decade - Michael Chang was even younger when he won the French four years later.

There has never been a teenage world champion in golf, in snooker, in boxing, in darts, in Formula One - all sports where individuals compete against each other. Mike Tyson, at 20, is the youngest world heavyweight boxing champion; Stephen Hendry, 21, the youngest world snooker champion; Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettal, both 23, the youngest F1 title winner.

Why tennis? Why should that sport produce some incredible feats from ones so young?

Tennis is a sport which marries everything together - skill, tactics, strength, subtlety, stamina (matches can last several hours) and beauty (if you scoff, I give you the Roger Federer backhand). And after all that, the bottom line is this - once on the court, you’re on your own. No-one else can help you.

I’ve always loved the sport. I didn’t need Emma Raducanu’s startling win to introduce me to tennis. I’ve spent more time on a court than I’ve ever spent on a football or cricket pitch. I wanted to play like John McEnroe just as much as I wanted to play football like Kenny Dalglish 40 years ago. I’ve been to Anfield, Old Trafford, Lord’s, Twickenham - and the Centre Court, SW19, is up there with the great British sporting cathedrals. If you’re laughing at that, I ask you to put aside your class-based preconceptions.

It’s a wonderful game and I hope thousands of people, of all ages, are inspired by it. Inspired by the greatest British sporting tale of all time. Ok, so call me biased for making that call. I might well be, I’ve just said I love the game, but I’m also right. And if you really think about it, you know I am ...