The four players who have brought Britain close to the top of world tennis again have all ploughed different furrows – but it’s the ploughing itself that sets them apart, says John Inverdale
Emma and Andy. Cam and Dan. They could be pairs in Strictly or some Simon Cowell cobbled-together band for a quick 18 months of fame. Instead they’re the quartet that, as 2021 nears its end, have suddenly made Britain a major tennis-playing nation again – two grand slam winners and two other ‘serious’ players in the men’s game.
A year on from penning an article for another publication which began with the words, and I precis, “Oh well, it was fun while it lasted but let’s get used to a few years post-Murray of not much British interest in anything,” here we are pondering what our Fab Four might or might not achieve in the coming months.
And there’s something that links them all, which is probably where the England rugby coach Eddie Jones was coming from when he sounded that warning note about the pitfalls of fame that might confront Emma Raducanu in the future – a point incidentally backed up by Simona Halep a couple of days later. What our outstanding foursome have in common is a consummate work ethic, and an understanding that there’s no short cut to success.
Emma may be 19, but she’s been playing tennis for 15 years – or more than three-quarters of her life. Yes there’s been education and A-levels and other passing distractions along the way, but fundamentally she’s always been a tennis player, serving and volleying day and night for that moment, whenever it might come, when talent and hard work would collide, as they did in an explosion of sporting pyrotechnics in New York.
While you were partying, Emma was serving. While you were half-cut drinking, she was half-volleying. She knows there’s no short cut.
Dan Evans was going to be an ‘Emma’ once upon a time, heralded as the next big thing until he allowed off-court issues to discolour his talent, culminating in a year-long ban for testing positive for cocaine in 2017. His solution on returning to the tour? To work so hard that he’s been on the cusp of the world’s top 20 – the kind of dogged competitor, with flashing Federer-esque ground strokes, that nobody wants in their half of the draw.
And then there’s Cam Norrie, British men’s No. 1. Watch him play and ask yourself some questions. What’s his signature stroke? How is he so good? How has he beaten so many people this year that he was in the end-of-year play-offs in Turin, albeit as a late replacement? And it’s the same answer of sorts, to all three. He is maximising every ounce of talent, never giving up on any ball, chasing even the most hopeless of causes. An example to all, whatever the discipline, whatever the sport.
Which leaves us with Andy. Such a part of the sporting establishment now that he barely needs a second name. Written off by probably all of you reading this article. Be honest: wasn’t it you through the duration of the pandemic who kept saying, “He’ll never win another major title”? And yet as we look ahead, he’s probably more likely than either Nadal or Federer to achieve such a feat, especially with Roger unlikely to play until late summer next year. Still believing he could be tennis’s first bionic grand slam champion, if that hip and various other bits can hold together for a fortnight. It won’t come easy, but it won’t be for want of trying.
So I’d like to take you back to the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Ben Johnson and all that. Now there was a man taking a short cut to ultimately tainted success.
Relentless, never-ending ground-stroke drills, rallies of 50 shots and more down the tramlines. Over and over again.
I was in the Olympic Stadium as Daley Thompson finished fourth in his bid to retain his decathlon title. He was the man who trained twice on Christmas Day because he knew his main rivals only trained once. The games of Flo-Jo (another short-cut taker) and for the second time Redgrave – a competitor whose middle name was workhorse.
But my abiding memory of those Games was none of that. It was hot in Seoul. Not just hot – crazy hot. So hot that, as a keen runner in those days, I used to set my alarm for half past 5.30am to head off for a few miles before the humidity strangled us all. And every morning she was there, on the tennis courts beside our hotel. Chris Evert, in the twilight of her career, practising at 6am in pursuit of an elusive Olympic medal. Relentless, never-ending ground-stroke drills, rallies of 50 shots and more down the tramlines. Over and over again. It was two years since her last Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, but there she was, still trading punches with her hitting partner like she was playing Martina a decade before.
An unforgettable image, but it’s that attitude – especially in punishing individual sports – that sets the achievers apart from the might-have-beens. By 1988 Evert had nothing to prove to anyone – except herself.
More than 30 years later, Andy Murray stands supreme, with all due respect to Fred Perry, as the greatest British player of all time. And yet he wants more, and he knows the only way to get it is to work hard. Harder.
Dan Evans knows that potentially his best years may have been squandered by a lack of focus, so there’s only one thing for it. Work. And Cam Norrie was no gifted teenage superstar, but a talented player who went to university and then thought he’d give it a go as a pro, and he knows that he’s no Medvedev or Tsitsipas in terms of instinctive brilliance, but there’s more than one way to get to the top.
Which leaves us with Emma. Over the next few weeks, Covid permitting, most of you will be inhabiting party central in the run-up to Christmas. Winding down with a view to not winding up again until the middle of January. Which is when the Australian Open is. The first Grand Slam tournament since New York.
“Would you welcome on to the Rod Laver Arena, the US Open champion, from Great Britain, Emma Raducanu.” Imagine that. Aged 19, when 12 months earlier, all you could think about were your Maths and Economics A-levels.
But the one thing you can be sure of, for all the legitimate concerns about her being distracted by Tiffany and Sports Direct (an interesting combination), is that while you were partying, she was serving. While you were half-cut drinking, she was half-volleying. She knows there’s no short cut. Her engrained work ethic, and its consequences, will be one of the fascinating sporting stories of 2022. But rest assured she most definitely does not want to be a Chesney Hawkes of tennis. What will drive her on through these winter months will be an insatiable desire to be more than just a “once and only”.
John Inverdale is our tennis Ambassador, and a broadcaster for ITV and the BBC.