Sports broadcaster Clare Balding spoke with Cathy Newman in the wake of Emma Raducanu’s stunning US Open victory. She talked about the significance of Raducanu’s success, how she achieved it after the disappointing end to her Wimbledon campaign only a matter of months ago and what it could mean for young women across the UK.
CB: I’m a big believer in the broader messages of sport, of what it means outside the field of play. And I think what Emma Raducanu’s story shows us is not only that you can have an education at the same time as being a sportswoman, and of course, she was doing her A-Levels only just this last spring/summer, but also you can bounce back. You think of what happened to her at Wimbledon. And when we all imagine the scariest thing that could happen to us, for an athlete not being able to breathe is the scariest thing that can happen to you. And that’s what happened to her at Wimbledon. For her to be able to bounce back from that, to be able to play the way she did without fear. I thought she showed great presence. She has an ability to almost make it feel as if she has more time. And she does that by being utterly present. And I think that’s the key to her mental strength and how she’s bounced back, that actually she doesn’t fast forward time. She lives absolutely and totally in the moment that she’s in right now. So she was able to play the ball, not the occasion, and therefore (that’s) the greatest thing for children and adults to look at and say, I can learn from that.
CN: Is it still easier, though, to be a big male sporting star than it is a woman?
CB: There are more opportunities for men for sure. And you can be an average male star and win an awful lot of money and make a very good living. I think for females in sport, the exciting thing for girls right now in school is they look at Emma Raducanu and they think that’s not beyond me. She’s just like me. She went to school in Bromley in Kent. They’re all thinking, she’s not that much different. And I love the fact that now you’ve got football with masses of opportunities. You’ve got cricket with masses of opportunities because of The Hundred. You’ve always had golf and tennis at the forefront of professional sport for women. You’ve got athletics, you’ve got swimming, you’ve got equestrian, you’ve got sailing, you’ve got lots and lots of different chances. But more than that, girls are now allowed to be vocal. They’re allowed to be competitive. They’re allowed to be ambitious. Those are not seen as negative things. And when I was growing up and I think probably, Cathy, when you were growing up, we were encouraged to not do that because that wasn’t feminine. I think with the help of Emma Raducanu, the whole idea of the scope of what is feminine is changing. And I love that because that means the opportunity is endless and you can be a bit different.
CN: She is the first British woman to win a grand slam title since 1977, that’s a very long time ago. Why is it that female sporting stars have been relatively few and far between over the last few decades? And is that now on the cusp of big change?
CB: I think in tennis it’s a very, very competitive environment and I think there have been academies that have been very successful elsewhere in the world. I think also there’s been, particularly across eastern Europe, a real drive to succeed for women in tennis because it’s been seen as a way of changing not just your life, but your whole family’s life. And I think there’s been a real hunger there for success. What’s exciting for me about this for women’s tennis generally is not only are we now interested and know Emma Raducanu, we also know Leylah Fernandez. We also will start to know all the other women that she plays in major semi-finals or finals or along the way. And that increases our interest in the sport.
CN: And of all of this, watching these two incredible teenagers performing at the top of their game, how important is that visibility for other people who might have an interest?
CB: It’s massive. And you think about it, what a brave and good deal for Channel 4 to do to buy the live rights so that everyone could watch it and 9.2 million people tuned in. And also, I have to commend Amazon for saying that they will give that rights money to the progress of women’s tennis in this country. So that is a fantastic outcome, but really important to see them both because they’re both teenagers and they’re not the first teenagers to win a major title. Steffi Graf, was a teenager, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles – Serena Williams was 17 when she won the first of her grand slam titles. But to see two of them there, the standard was so high from the first point, it was just phenomenal. And I think, of course, visibility is everything. And that’s what will really make a difference to kids that now turn around to their parents and say, I want to do the thing that everybody tells me I can’t do.
CN: And just finally, you’re at Wembley where the Paralympians are going to be welcomed home. Among them, Sarah Storey, the most successful Paralympian of all time. It has been a fantastic summer of sport for Britain, hasn’t it?
CB: It’s been a fantastic summer of sport. And I would say it’s also been a fantastic summer sport for women, for British women. And that’s what I find so exciting, because I love men doing well, of course I do, and I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but I love celebrating success and that we should smile and enjoy the ride. I think we’re going to enjoy a really fabulous ride with Emma Raducanu for years to come.