She was just a little girl enjoying a tennis knock-about with her doting dad in a local Bromley park.
But there was something – even at the age of four – about the way Emma Raducanu was striking the ball that caught the eye of passing tennis coach Richard Whichello.
So ‘unusually exceptional’ was her potential that Mr Whichello, a former British junior No1 who once represented Britain in the Davis Cup, couldn’t resist approaching her father, Ian, to say how talented she was.
Without that encounter, the world might never have heard of tennis’s newest global superstar. If Mr Whichello hadn’t struck up that conversation, the so-called ‘Fairytale of New York’ might never have happened.
For 14 years after that father and pint-sized daughter rally, Emma is celebrating making sporting history by winning the US Open – the first British woman to win a major title for 44 years since Virginia Wade lifted the Wimbledon trophy in 1977.
Emma Raducanu, pictured as a youngster, was playing tennis as young as four years old
Here was an ordinary teenager with a rare talent from a humble three-bedroomed semi in one of the less scenic parts of suburbia who not only went to the winners’ ball, but pocketed £1.8million in prize money and praise from all who witnessed her stunning victory – from the tennis greats to Her Majesty the Queen.
‘Oh, I say!’ as the late, great tennis commentator Dan Maskell might have said. And all this without losing her charming sense of wonder at her own meteoric success, even admitting she was so convinced she’d be knocked out in the first round, she’d booked a flight home two weeks before the final.
Indeed, she joked her original US Open goal was simply to win enough money to replace her lost Airpods, cost £109. She can afford more than 16,000 pairs of the wireless earphones now – possibly even more with talk of the multi-million pound deals expected to be laid at her nimble feet.
But it all started in that park with a young girl with raw talent, devoted parents determined to nurture it and the first of a series of tennis coaches and mentors who have never doubted her ability to reach the highest echelons of the sport.
Today Richard Whichello – Bjorn Borg’s practice partner during the five-times Wimbledon champion’s comeback in 1991 – is head coach at Beckenham Sports Club, Kent, where he teaches youngsters who all now want to emulate local girl Emma.
Mr Whichello is well known in tennis circles to be instrumental in nurturing her early talent and is said to be incredibly proud of her subsequent success.
Today Richard Whichello – Bjorn Borg’s practice partner during the five-times Wimbledon champion’s comeback in 1991 – is head coach at Beckenham Sports Club, Kent, where he teaches youngsters who all now want to emulate local girl Emma
‘My loyalty to Emma and her family is huge,’ he told the Mail but declined to speak further as he didn’t want to create any ‘distraction’ in her moment of glory.
All he would say after she first took the world by storm at Wimbledon was: ‘I have a feeling something seriously special is happening. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of and couldn’t happen to a more deserving and nicer girl.’
Others have revealed, however, that during that first conversation with Emma’s Romanian father Ian, who moved to the UK with his Chinese wife Renee when Emma was two, the two men forged a lasting friendship after discovering their children would be starting at Bickley Primary School together.
Not only in charge of the tennis curriculum at the school, Mr Whichello encouraged Emma’s parents to enrol her for lessons at Sundridge tennis club in Bromley where her talent and potential are said to have been ‘in a different league’ from the moment she picked up a racquet.
Already a star in the making aged six when she won the Under 8s Girls Championships at Bromley Tennis Centre, he is said to have been hugely proud of Emma when she won her first junior ITF title aged 13.
Pam Kooner, whose two children aged 15 and 12 have practised with Emma, says: ‘Emma is absolutely lovely and really humble. All the stars have aligned for her, but it’s no surprise, really, because she’s always been an extraordinary talent. I watched her on court for eight years and none of the other kids were in her league. She was exceptional, no-one else had the same ‘je ne sais quoi’.
Coaches have highlighted the star’s work ethic as the key to her incredible success on the court
‘People talk about a fairytale, but she’s worked so damned hard. Everyone is so happy for her because there isn’t an arrogant bone in Emma’s body.
‘She still comes back to the clubs where she started out to inspire the next generation. She’s got it all, resilience, determination and a really hard work ethic. My understanding is that from a very early age she was getting up at 5am and doing lots of strength and core exercises off her own back.
‘She was just very determined to succeed. A lot of talented players drop off as they become teenagers. They don’t want to put the hours in, practising four hours a day, six days a week around their school work. Emma was different.
‘This isn’t an overnight thing. She’s worked damn hard for a long time. Anyone who has ever had Emma in their squad has said ‘you never have to tell her twice’.’
By all accounts, Emma’s parents wanted their daughter to be high-achieving, whatever she turned her hand to, but the drive was all hers – propelling her to achieve an A* and an A in Maths and economics in her A-levels as well as taking the tennis world by storm.
But the secret to her sudden comeback after abandoning her Wimbledon fourth round match in July with breathing difficulties may well come down to a man who few outside the tennis set had heard of: Andrew Richardson, another childhood coach.
Until recently, he worked as head performance tennis coach at Culford School, Suffolk, but coached Emma for two years at Bromley Tennis Centre from the age of 11.
A former professional player who peaked at 133 in the global rankings and was best man at Tim Henman’s wedding, Richardson, 47, took over from coach Nigel Sears – Andy Murray’s father-in-law – after Wimbledon. Emma explained that Richardson was ‘a very calming character. Sometimes if I’m getting intense, he’s very good at just relaxing me and reassuring me.
There was something – even at the age of four – about the way Emma Raducanu was striking the ball that caught the eye of passing tennis coach Richard Whichello
‘He’s very good at just making me realise that doing the basics to a really good level is going to take you a long way. I really respect Nigel, I think very highly of him but at this stage of my development a fresh voice and fresh eyes are sometimes good.’
As she stormed through her early rounds at Wimbledon, Nigel, who had been a consultant to Emma since she was 15, said the sky was ‘the limit’ for her.
He added: ‘She’s very ambitious and she thinks big. She’s born to play tennis and she likes the stage. She’s eating it up.’
With a Vogue interview under her belt and sponsors queuing up, Emma has the world at her feet – but never forgets the people who were there for her before she was famous.
The young star is always quick to pay tribute to all those on her team – past and present – who have helped make the weekend’s fairytale ending possible right down to her physio and nutritionist. As for her winnings, far from embracing the celebrity lifestyle, she is far too sensible, saying: ‘I will use the money on good coaches. Tennis is an expensive sport, to travel and compete week-in, week-out.’
For all her sudden stardom, at heart she appears to remain the Bromley teenager who only this summer left the highly selective Newstead Wood grammar school for girls in Orpington where, as a ‘model pupil’ she also gained three 9s and four 8s in her GCSEs.
She admits she can’t wait to go home to celebrate with her parents, see friends and visit the clubs and coaches who helped to win a place in the history books.
‘Right now I’ve absolutely no care in the world. I’m just loving life,’ she said. ‘I’m just really trying to embrace the moment and take it all in. I think it’s definitely time to switch off from any future thoughts or from any schedule. I’ve got absolutely no clue.’
Perhaps she may even go back to the park where it all started, and enjoy a knockabout with her dad – though no prizes for guessing who might win that rematch.