Back on court this weekend for the first time since their US Open final, champion Emma Raducanu and runner-up Leylah Fernandez will have all eyes on them as they make their respective debuts at Indian Wells.
The teenage duo have been thrust into the spotlight following their stunning exploits in New York, where the 18-year-old Raducanu became the first-ever qualifier to win a major and the unseeded 19-year-old Fernandez ousted three top-five opponents en route to the final.
From Met Gala appearances and movie premieres, to new sponsorship announcements and career-high ranking jumps – the last few weeks have been a whirlwind for the pair, whose lives are changing dramatically as a result of their sudden success.
Yet, talking to the press on the eve of the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells, both Raducanu and Fernandez did their very best to downplay the pressure of expectation that has suddenly been placed on their shoulders.
When asked how she plans on dealing with her new status, Raducanu, who faces Aliaskandra Sasnovich in the second round on Friday, said: “I haven’t done anything personally yet. I’m not sure. I think if the time comes then it does, but I think I don’t really want to change anything.
“What got me to this point is not thinking anything differently. So if I just put additional thoughts in my head then that would just create a problem I think. I’m just going to keep going about my business and staying the same.”
Raducanu, who was ranked outside the top 300 this time last year and is now up to No 22 in the world, is seeded at the WTA 1000 event in just her fifth ever tour-level tournament.
“Staying the same” might not be so easy.
Fernandez, who opens her Indian Wells campaign against Alize Cornet on Friday, has more tour-level experience compared to Raducanu. The Canadian claimed her first WTA title earlier this year in Monterrey, and even as a junior, she was a world No 1 and a Roland Garros girls’ singles champion.
Still, Fernandez’s run at the US Open was unexpected and the attention she will be getting moving forward will be like nothing she’s experienced before.
“I’m very lucky to have a great team around me to just let me focus on my craft, on my tennis, and not be overwhelmed with everything that’s going on right now. Honestly I just can’t wait to be back on a tennis court competing again,” said the 28th-ranked Fernandez.
When she attended the Met Gala last month, wearing a Carolina Herrera dress that was inspired by outfits Serena and Venus Williams wore for a Vogue photoshoot more than two decades ago, Fernandez admits it was the first time she ever donned heels and got glammed up that way for an event.
“I think the one thing on my mind going up the stairs in The Met was, ‘don’t fall down, just walk one foot in front of the other’,” she said with a laugh.
Dealing with the pressure
The last teenager to win a major prior to Raducanu was Iga Swiatek, who was 19 and unseeded when she stormed to the Roland Garros title 12 months ago, without dropping a set.
Swiatek has been very open about her process of navigating the pressures that come with sudden success at a young age, and her work with her travelling psychologist Daria Abramowicz has helped her put together a consistent 2021, where she is the only woman to have made at least the fourth round at all four grand slams this season.
The Polish world No 4 has explained how she wasn’t really prepared for that kind of success and that it takes time to get comfortable with it all.
“I wouldn’t say that right now I’m 100 per cent comfortable, because still with the mentality that I have it’s hard to sometimes stay calm because I’m really ambitious and I’m a perfectionist,” Swiatek said on Wednesday. “Knowing how I played in Roland Garros, it’s sometimes frustrating for me that I can’t repeat that at every tournament.”
Swiatek admits she carried the burden of wanting to prove her French Open triumph was not a fluke, but with time, that feeling subsided, thanks to her title runs in Rome and Adelaide during the first five months of the season.
A balancing act
She has some sage advice for Raducanu and Fernandez on how to tackle this upcoming period.
“I would say balancing all the things you have to do on court, all the things that they’ve been doing with the past years, with all that new stuff, because it can be overwhelming at the beginning,” said Swiatek.
“It was good for me that Roland Garros was the last tournament of the season, I know that they will probably have one or two more and then they’re going to have a break and they’re going to have time to reflect on that.
“I would say balancing that, and also having the kind of people around you who aren’t going to push you to do even more publicity [commitments], just maybe staying calm a little bit and waiting to see how you’re going to react to all of that.
“Because in tennis we really don’t have time to sit and look, we don’t have like World Championships every two years, or maybe Olympics every four years; every tournament we have seems really important, especially I learned that right now when I’m [fighting] in the Race [to qualify for the WTA Finals].
“So we have to learn those things pretty quickly and I think all the people around can help a lot.”
On paper, trying to keep things the same, the way Raducanu and Fernandez have suggested, is a solid plan, but acknowledging that life will inevitably change for them is also important.
Bianca Andreescu, who won the 2019 US Open at the age of 19, says it’s important to savour the moment of success, but also “don’t let it go too much in your head, stay confident obviously, but don’t become stuck up or, you know, ‘I won a grand slam so look at me’.
“Just stay humble, remain grateful and continue to work hard, because everyone says, at least in my experience, it’s easy to get to the top but staying at the top is what is the hardest part.”
Talking to people who have been in a similar position can also be very helpful, and Fernandez says she was “lucky” to have met five-time major winner Maria Sharapova at the Met Gala, and pick the Russian’s brain on how she managed things during her highly-successful career.
Raducanu had Tim Henman in her corner during her surprise US Open run and will get help from former British No 1 Jeremy Bates during Indian Wells, before she ups her search for a full-time coach.
A standout piece of advice she has received so far is, “just keep having fun with it really, I’d say that’s the biggest thing”, said Raducanu.
One player who knows all too well what it’s like to be a teen star is 17-year-old American phenom Coco Gauff. The highest-ranked teenager on the WTA tour at No 19 in the world, Gauff exploded onto the scene as a 15-year-old qualifier who made the Wimbledon fourth round on her major debut in 2019, ousting Venus Williams along the way.
Gauff, who is already a two-time WTA champion and a Roland Garros quarter-finalist, acknowledges that “there is definitely a shift” happening on the women’s tour right now and “that this new generation, Gen Z, we're coming and we're coming strong”.
In a recent interview with GQ magazine, Roger Federer, who is a co-founder of Team8, the company that manages Gauff, spoke about the pressures these young stars are facing in the age of social media – something he did not have to deal with during the first decade of his career, when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were non-existent.
Gauff, who said she has a time limit for certain apps on her phone to avoid overuse, echoes Federer’s sentiments, and warned Raducanu about the perils of social media.
“That’s honestly the only advice I would say, just set time away from the phone. Because it is exciting when you’re getting all the retweets and the follows and all of that, but it can be overwhelming sometimes, at least that was my experience with it. That’s probably what I wish I would have known then, not to focus on social media,” says Gauff.
Hungry for more
For the moment, the WTA’s teen queens can rely on each other for motivation, as they each continue to strive to push further in the sport. That passion and drive is what can help keep them on track.
“I think we’re just all so hungry to do something on tour,” says Fernandez. “I know from my own experience I’ve always wanted to do something special on court, to be able to play against these champions, these legends, just to put on a good show for everybody. We just want to be on court, have fun, and compete as well as you can, and the result hopefully is on our side.”