Along with nine million others, I watched the tennis match on Saturday evening (11 September 2021) on UKs Channel Four television when Emma Raducanu, 18, from Bromley in south London won the US Open in New York.
More precisely, I watched for a few minutes and then washed the dishes. I then popped back into the living room, sat on the sofa, watched some more and tidied up the kitchen. Emma did not drop a set in any of her 10 matches, including the final.
I am not a tennis fan but one would expect a measure of impartiality from the UK commentators but that seemed too much to expect. The commentary sank into oblivion compared to the utter madness of the hype over Emma that followed in the media – a pathology of praise.
Emma won the match 6-4, 6-3 with her sinking to her knees on her winning serve. Her parents, rest of the family, trainer, support team, previous trainers, her schools, teachers and friends would have felt thrilled at her well-deserved success.
Trainers, schoolteachers and commentators praised her mental strength throughout her tennis matches since childhood. Emma’s achievements in tennis are exceptional in the space of a few months. She became the:
• First qualifier to win a Slam (one of four major tennis matches)
• First qualifier not to lose a set in 10 matches.
• First British female winner at the US Open since 1968
• Youngest women’s Slam champion in the past 17 years.
• Youngest Briton to win a Grand Slam title
The UK media elevated her to the realm of the supreme sporting goddess, announcing legendary status, a role model, a new era of tennis and so on. Her triumph relegated all other news to secondary status. The intensity of these projections upon her will not serve her in the short or long term. The usually conservative BBC went overboard about her winning a tennis match. Astonishing. Ridiculous. Meteoric. Unbelievable.
We live in an era of cultural madness, of creations of superstars, obsessions with talented and beautiful teenage girls in sport and on stage with their massive Instagram following. These teenagers serve the vested interests of powerful corporations who offer them irresistible sums of money to sponsor their products.
Emma received a cheque for around $2.4 million dollars for winning the US Open. This is enough money to last a lifetime. The media thinks differently. UK media predicts she will earn more than the current richest tennis player, Roger Federer who has earned around $500 million. What’s the point of accumulating so much money?
Is there a danger of selling one’s soul to the highest bidder for fame and money? The life of the elite tennis player revolves around tennis. The UK media is merciless building up people into superstars and then tearing them down. As soon as Emma shows vulnerability, they will attack her when she loses matches or when she says the wrong word in a press conference. The press will get hold of malicious gossip about her.
Her support team have their own vested interests in her public and financial success. Emma must remember her team support her, not the other way around. At times, she must exercise her authority to say NO to expectations, pressure and demands upon her. She must not compromise to please the team while the team respects her decisions. This is genuine support.
Her precious parents will need to stand behind her in the hard times to come in the years ahead. Emma may have no one else to rely upon. A person needs a strong figure or two in times of crisis. She has reached a high point in tennis within months.
Emma comes across as a bright, intelligent woman, with fine academic skills, charming and genuine. Emma is an immense credit to her parents, a Chinese mother and Rumanian father. Via YouTube, she spoke briefly in Mandarin to people in China and elsewhere – a thank you to her Chinese heritage. A credit to her.
Ten Worldly Conditions
I remember the words of the Buddha. He taught a liberated way of life free from contraction into worldly conditions. At times, he referred to 10 worldly conditions. Tennis has become immersed in all 10 conditions.
• Praise and Blame
• Victory and Defeat
• Success and Failure
• Gain and Loss
• Pleasure and Pain including Fitness and Injury.
Despite her full tennis schedule, I hope Emma finds time to explore life outside of her role as a tennis player and outside her personal/social life. There is much to discover and communicate unrelated to the 10 worldly conditions. She will benefit from listening to and having conversations with inspirational and insightful people.
Tennis organisations, powerful sponsors, the media and other ambitious tennis players will keep Emma’s consciousness contracted around these 10 worldly conditions, as if nothing else mattered.
Looking at the media, we end up with the impression that the only public good to emerge from her tennis success shows encouragement for primary school children to take up tennis. Emma has the potential to offer much more to society with her clarity of communication, power of focus and natural empathy skills.
I doubt if we will read or witness her perceptions and values outside tennis anytime soon. She might become a prisoner to the sport, an item of property owned by her sponsors and those who run tennis championships. In signing the financial contract, she might sign away her intellectual property rights to speak her mind. Just as with other elite sports stars under contract, the sponsors will strongly discourage her from speaking out on any political, social, economic and environmental issues.
Tennis fans constitute every political-social viewpoint. If she speaks up on matters outside of tennis, important to her, the media will tear into every word she says or writes. Tennis fans will react with an intensity of praise and blame. The media will quote well known voices wishing to undermine Emma’s values.
The media will launch into fierce critiques when she faces the worldly conditions – blame, defeat, failure, loss and injury. She will have to face invasions in her personal life around the worldly conditions. Such circumstances will challenge her mental strength far more than the tennis court in big matches.
One tennis journalist, who attends numerous press conferences after the match, spoke of the pressure on young players after the game to say something the media can run with. The journalist wrote: “Gossip: Good. Anger: Good. Feuds: Good. Tears: Good. Personal Tragedy: Good.”
Another tennis journalist, plus other low ranked tennis players, referred to the highly successful players as ‘boring.’ This is an unfair perception. Elite players fear to say the ‘wrong’ word because of the ruthless reactions afterwards. The minds of the players contract into bland speaking to protect themselves.
The tennis world also exercises immense control over their lives including clothes, equipment, press statements, marketing of their persona and more. The combination of the demands of tennis management, corporate sponsors and financial advisors ensure the players have little room to express themselves with confidence and courage on what matters to them. Some players only know freedom of expression for an hour or two on the tennis court.
The pressure on Emma is real. If she speaks up or makes any kind of obvious protest, the media will treat her as another spoilt rich kid ungrateful for her success.
A Gloating Media
Some gifted players take a break from tennis, such as Naomi Osaka, world number 2, from Japan, to protect her mental health. She boldly quit the grand slam for a period rather than face the mostly middle-aged male press with their invasive questions.
Afterwards, she spoke of her recent experiences, “When I win, I don’t feel happy, I feel more like a relief. When I lose, I feel very sad. I don’t think that’s normal.”
She added that the contracts for tennis players force them to play on “otherwise they would not play at all.”
A life of tennis courts, aeroplanes, hotels, media appearances, exhibition matches, promotions and photo shoots became empty once the glamour wears off. The players must keep telling everybody how lucky they are. Deep down, they may feel differently.
I doubt if Emma will want to live in the UK if she endures years of media stalking. Born in Canada, Emma might well resonate with Meghan Markle, also links with Canada, who left the UK to find peace of mind.
Will we see the best of Emma in the world of tennis, outside tennis, both or neither?
I would consider the best of a human being shows itself in depths of kindness, acts of compassion and a wise approach to challenges of life. I believe this young woman has much to offer with her presence, joyful spirit and global heritage. Dedication to the welfare of others reveals a noble priority.
Finally, Emma could take two concepts used in every tennis match to a different level – LOVE and SERVICE.
Stay bold, Emma.