The mass outpouring of joy and celebration in response to Emma Raducanu’s remarkable triumph at the US Open has been one of the great sporting stories of this or any other decade.
It wasn’t just the unprecedented fashion in which the teenager stormed to her first Grand Slam title after starting out as a qualifier in New York, nor the imperious manner in which she won all seven matches without conceding a set.
Instead, it was the confirmation in her positivity and genuine passion for the game and the combination of power, precision and panache which she displayed against opponents including the Olympic champion Belinda Bencic and Leylah Fernandez, whom she defeated in the final, that here is an athlete with the potential to dominate tennis for the next decade if – and this might be the hard part – she can ignore the hype.
Martina Navratilova was one of the first to congratulate the British player, but she also sent out a brusque message to those who criticised Raducanu at Wimbledon – including old ‘Superbrat’ himself John McEnroe – that youngsters who emerge into the spotlight deserve time to develop and adapt to their new existence in a global goldfish bowl.
She was speaking from experience. As indeed was Billie Jean King, whose new autobiography All In provides a stark reminder of how recently the idea of women being taken seriously in organising their own tennis circuit was derided and decried.
King, who was among the driving forces in transforming attitudes within a notoriously chauvinist environment, has outlined in graphic detail the attitudes which prevailed when she met Bobby Riggs in what was billed the Battle of the Sexes in 1973.
Riggs had no time for women’s rights
At that stage, the spirit of Ron Burgundy’s Anchorman was flourishing throughout American society. Riggs, a former Wimbledon singles, doubles and mixed doubles winner – in 1939 – might have been 55 by the time he signed a contract to tackle King at the Houston Astrodome in Texas, but became a national celebrity by pronouncing: “Men are supreme and women should stay in the kitchen and look after the kids.”
As King, who amassed a little matter of 39 Grand Slam titles in her career, recalled: “Riggs wasn’t the only man saying that women belonged in the home or that we were constitutionally incapable of handling tough jobs and stress.
“By the mid-1970s, only 9% of physicians in America were female because medical school admissions had been withheld from them for years. Women’s representation was also abysmally low in law, politics, CEO positions, piloting a passenger aeroplane and countless other endeavours.
“Bobby’s male chauvinist pig act tapped into anxities about men’s changing status, and a lot of what he said wouldn’t be tolerated today. But I became a symbol for people who were tired of seeing women dismissed en masse, demeaned as second-class citizens, and shut out of opportunities everywhere and not just sports.
“Women were still earning only 56.6% of what a man earned for the same job in 1973 and the gap was worse for women of colour.
“Sexism and racism abounded. The glass ceiling was real.”
Some people have dismissed the contest on September 20 as a trumped-up irrelevance, but it certainly wasn’t that to Billie Jean. The crowd of 30,472 was a record for a tennis match, while an estimated 90 million viewers watched worldwide on television.
When King made her grand entrance, and the band played I Am Woman (the Helen Reddy hit song), the TV audience was treated to the following Burgundy-flavoured commentary from Howard Cosell, the most famous announcer in the States of his vintage: “And here comes Billie Jean King….a very attractive young lady.
“Sometimes, you get the feeling that if she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders, and took her glasses off, you would have somebody vying for a Hollywood screen test.”
Once the players were on court, King reigned over her rival, taking advantage of his weak backhand and forcing him to scurry about the surface and wearing him down. She had agreed to participate in a five-set contest and secured victory by 6-4 6-3 6-3.
A few days later, she flew to Philadelphia and walked into a newspaper office, where everybody applauded her exploits. Then as, she related: “A group of women ran across to greet me and one of them said: ‘Billie Jean, we’ve been wanting to ask for a raise for 10 years, but we never had the courage to do it.
“Another said: ‘After you won that match, we decided to go for it.’
“I asked: ‘That’s great, but did you get the raise?’
“Well, right on.”
It wouldn’t do to overstate the impact of her success. After all, in 2013, the BBC commentator John Inverdale caused offence when he said that Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli “was never going to be a looker.”
Then, earlier this summer, at the London venue, Raducanu herself was on the receiving end of dismissive comments from the likes of McEnroe and Kevin Pietersen after retiring from her fourth-round match with Ajla Tomljanovic, due to breathing difficulty.
But the 18-year-old has the necessary ingredients to transcend any obstacles. She watched and learned from Andy Murray in the early days and one suspects she won’t be fazed by celebrity. From the outset, she has made it clear her focus is wholly on tennis.
And thankfully, now we are in 2021, it’s her journey. She gets to decide.