The iconic Royal Albert Hall, celebrating its 150th Anniversary, welcomed Emma Raducanu on Sunday as the long-running Champions Tennis event came to a close after being held annually in London since 1997.
My expectations of myself are to keep improving, I want to look back at the end of the year and see that I made gains in different areas. I know it will take a lot of patience to get to where I want to be and smooth out that consistency. It’s all about building robustness, physically. It will be my first calendar year on the tour, it will be a cool experience to play a full schedule. I’m still quite young. We will learn and get better. Emma Raducanu
John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg went head-to-head in an exhibition match years after their last meeting on tour as part of the invitational event that nowadays showcases those who have either held the World No 1 ranking, reached a Grand Slam final or achieved success in the Davis Cup.
US Open champion Raducanu, who turned 19 years old earlier this month, is a rare teenager to play the event, and she took it by storm.
Former British No 1 Andrew Castle hosted, and summed up Raducanu’s astonishing accomplishments since she last played in London at Wimbledon in the summer where, as a school girl, she won 3 matches to make it into the second week before her retirement against Ajla Tomljanovic ended her hopes in the 4th round.
Then, a few weeks later, A-levels under her belt, she stormed through qualifying and the main draw in New York to win the US Open without dropping a set to become a household name.
“Who are you all here for?” Castle bellowed, and the crowd responded: “Emma!”
“Just a few weeks ago, she was a student,” Castle boomed. “Now she only has one name.”
Raducanu made her way to the court to play an exhibition match against Elena-Gabriela Ruse, Romania’s World No 85, who is both her friend and practice partner.
They were accompanied by the sound of Roar by Katy Perry, and Ruse was quick to lighten the mood with remarks to make it fun.
“It is pretty surreal to play on the same courts that I once watched growing up,” Emma said after picking apart Ruse with her punishing groundstrokes and mostly putting away the drop-shots the Romanian threw in as an attempt to quell the storm.
Raducanu was unfazed, as she delivered a sparkling performance in front of an adoring crowd, winning 6-3 7-6(3), but this was not about competition, it was a home-coming.
A couple of times, Ruse asked ball kids to stand in for her to return serve and join in the action.
At the end of the warmup, a deep male voice had broken the silence: “We love you, Emma!”; while another young fan asked her to marry her in the middle of the match, both prompting Raducanu’s trademark smile, which drew fond laughter from the crowd.
“It was amazing to play at home in front of everyone here,” she said afterwards. “I felt it straight from the minute I walked out — it was an incredible atmosphere — and I really enjoyed playing here.”
In her on-court interview, she said she had previously been to the Champions Tennis event at the age of 6, when her father, Ian, took her and they sat in the upper circle.
“All I wanted was to see was [Mansour] Bahrami hold five balls in his hands,” she said. “Yesterday, I got the chance to hit with him.”
She has come a long way since then, tipped to end her incredible year by winning the prestigious BBC Sports Personality award, although she will be voting for 7-times Formula One World Champion and her hero Lewis Hamilton.
“I don’t understand how it’s even a possibility,” Raducanu said.
She met Hamilton at the Met Gala that followed her US Open triumph in New York, and they share much in common, including a love for go-karting during their respective childhoods.
“We had a really good conversation there, and since then I’ve been looking up to him, following him and supporting him,” she said. “Whenever we meet, it’s really cool.”
If she does win SPOTY, Raducanu will not be present, but training in the Middle East with new coach Torben Beltz before flying out to Australia on 27 December for just her 3rd Grand Slam event.
As for her prospects next year, Raducanu is still getting used to finding herself ranked in the Top 20 on the WTA Tour.
“My expectations of myself are to keep improving, I want to look back at the end of the year and see that I made gains in different areas,” she said. “I know it will take a lot of patience to get to where I want to be and smooth out that consistency.
“It’s all about building robustness, physically. It will be my first calendar year on the tour, it will be a cool experience to play a full schedule. I’m still quite young. We will learn and get better.”
The teenager from Bromley, just a few miles away, keeps her feet firmly on the ground.
“I have my parents here who were telling me off yesterday morning big time,” she told the crowd. “I said I was tired… both of them told me off!
“I am just going about my business, taking the train in sometimes,” added the first qualifier ever to win a Grand Slam trophy. “I am doing the same journeys I used to.
“I feel like I am the exact same person, I will go about everything I used to do, I don’t see why I should change things that got me that title. I am still enjoying it.”
Nevertheless, Raducanu also recognises that while she has had success as the hunter, now she is the hunted and therefore a potential scalp on tour.
“Pressure is a privilege,” she said. “I don’t think about other people’s opinions.”
And so, tennis took its final bow at the Royal Albert Hall, where not only Champions Tennis has flourished for 24 years, but also the historic Wightman Cup and the Dewar Cup that also took place there in the 1970s and 80s.
Organisers of the Champions Tennis tournament have announced that a new home now being sought to ‘grow and adapt the event’.
“A lot of the players said that this was one of the most special venues they have ever played tennis at,” Nikhil Waugh, the tournament director, said. “John McEnroe always said that this was his Wimbledon.
“As soon as he retired [from pro tennis], he always loved coming back to the Royal Albert Hall, which is such an amazing place and theatre to play tennis.”
It takes considerable work to convert the venue into a tennis stadium, though, needing a a non-stop 24-hour building turn-around after concerts to take out the front 6 rows of the stalls seats and construct a raised wooden floor for the acrylic hard court to be laid on.
Boris Becker, Pete Sampras and Tim Henman have all graced the Royal Albert Hall at various points in the past 24 years, but the mainstay was McEnroe until his retirement 3 years ago at the age of 59.
“The most iconic moment in my time was John’s last match in 2018,” Waugh said. “All the players put him on their shoulders as he walked off the court. It was such a memorable moment.”
Mansour Bahrami, the game’s court jester, provided trick-tennis to amuse the crowds while, over the years, a reduction in the average age of the field added a competitive edge to the matches.
This year, there were 3 teams, led by Greg Rusedski, Mark Philippoussis and Goran Ivanisevic, fielding Marcos Baghdatis, Tommy Haas, Radek Stepanek, Tomas Berdych, Fernando González, Xavier Malisse, Nicolás Almagro, David Ferrer and Mikhail Youzhny.
Paul McCann, Vice President Tennis Events at IMG said: “For 24 years we’ve given fans the amazing opportunity to watch their favourite tennis superstars play in the iconic Royal Albert Hall, and this year has been like no other.
“It’s fantastic to see the players compete on the court again and, for a final time, cheered on by the roar of the packed crowd.”
Team Greg took the final Champions Tennis honours but, in truth, it was Emma Raducanu’s day.