At Wimbledon, Emma Raducanu’s Withdrawal Renews Focus on Well Being

WIMBLEDON, England — A day after the British teenager Emma Raducanu struggled to control her breathing and retired from her fourth-round match at Wimbledon, she was back on the BBC for an interview with the longtime host Sue Barker.

“I don’t know what caused it,” Raducanu said. “I think that it was a combination of everything that has gone on behind the scenes in the last week, the accumulation of the excitement, the buzz.”

Raducanu, 18, arrived for her first main-draw appearance at Wimbledon with a wild card and a ranking of 338 and proceeded to beat three experienced players in straight sets before her retirement against Ajla Tomljanovic of Australia on Monday when trailing 4-6, 0-3.

It was frightening to see her putting her left hand to her abdomen and her chest with evident concern in the final games before calling for the trainer. It was also a reminder of the pressures of elite sport. It is quite an adjustment to play in something as thrilling and potentially overwhelming as Wimbledon, particularly for a young British hopeful suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

Thriving is not a given.

“I think when you have the long lens of the present staring at you, you just don’t know how you are going to react,” said Mark Petchey, the coach, commentator and former British player who has worked with Raducanu. “When great champions walk out, with their experience, we know because we’ve seen them do it time and again. But someone like Emma was stepping into a huge void of the unknown, and she didn’t know how she was going to respond.”

Before Wimbledon, Raducanu said the biggest crowd she had played before was “maybe a hundred” people. On Monday night, she was on No. 1 Court under a closed roof with a few thousand roaring for her. It was heady but ultimately too much, at least on this occasion.

“I think it’s a great learning experience for me going forwards,” she said to Barker in her interview. “Now next time hopefully I’ll be better prepared.”

Meanwhile, tennis officials can continue to consider how to better serve players’ well-being, particularly its young ones. This has been a time of considerable reflection in the sport since Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open after a clash with officials over her decision to skip news conferences. When she withdrew before her second-round match, she revealed that she had been dealing with bouts of depression since winning her first Grand Slam singles title in 2018 at the U.S. Open.

Raducanu and Osaka’s cases are not necessarily comparable.

“Emma’s was very much a competitive situation where suddenly it just became overwhelming,” Petchey said. “I don’t think Emma will feel that again personally, and I think that’s very different to Naomi’s situation, which I think is the trickiest in our sport right now because she’s such a megastar, and somehow we do need to solve it.”

Osaka, who represents Japan but is based in the United States, has not competed since the French Open, skipping Wimbledon to spend time with friends and family at home in California. But she confirmed to the Japanese broadcaster NHK this week that she intends to participate in the Tokyo Olympics that begin July 23 and in the news conferences that will be part of it, while giving consideration to her mental health.

Re-establishing that dialogue with the public and the news media seems a conciliatory and constructive move after the standoff in Paris last month.

Her criticisms of the existing system, which she finds repetitive and too often negative, and her openness about her mental and emotional struggles have also raised awareness in tennis and beyond about the challenges players face in the spotlight.

Osaka’s generation seems more attuned to that struggle and more willing to make concessions to it. One of the shifts is to avoid judgment.

“There is always a context and always something that is behind the scenes,” said Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist who works with the 20-year-old Polish tennis star Iga Swiatek and other elite athletes. “Even if you have a platform to speak on, it doesn’t mean you always need to use it. I think this is one of the big challenges of living in the internet era for all people but sport is a kind of magnifying glass. It’s easy to form an opinion, but not always good to do it without context or data, because it could be very harmful.”

Abramowicz, who was counseling Swiatek long before she broke through to win last year’s French Open, said that preparing athletes for what they might face was vital rather than just helping them cope after they face it.

“I also feel we often prepare athletes for a loss, how to deal and cope with that, but we don’t do enough to prepare them for what you do when you reach your top level and achieve success,” she said.

Abramowicz is encouraged to see more athletes, including tennis stars like Daniil Medvedev of Russia and Ons Jabeur of Tunisia at Wimbledon, working openly with sports psychologists and mental coaches.

But she thinks all of those in regular contact with players need to be better educated on mental health.

“Everyone from the stakeholders to the coaches to the physiotherapists to the journalists to former players who work for media platforms,” she said. “After Roland Garros, I’ve already seen a difference from the WTA media staff and how they approach players after a match. They are asking about their well-being and asking if they feel comfortable doing press after a match and when the best time might be to do it. So we have changes.”

After Raducanu’s retirement on Monday, John McEnroe, a former player who is working as an analyst for the BBC, said he felt badly for her and that it appeared the experience had all been “a bit too much, as is understandable.” His comments drew criticism from Judy Murray, Andy Murray’s mother, and others for being speculative, coming before Raducanu had spoken herself.

The youngest, least experienced players deserve the most thoughtful treatment. Putting Raducanu in a prime-time television slot on No. 1 Court may not, with hindsight, have been the wisest or most empathetic move. Nor was it reassuring to read a story in the British news media on the morning of her fourth-round match that predicted Raducanu could be one of the top three earners in women’s tennis if she could “sustain her form.”

That seemed premature at best, destructive at worst.

“I think it’s irresponsible to go into the realm of the hypothetical so quickly,” Petchey said. “We are unwise not to learn from history as part of the media. To heap that on an 18-year-old girl’s shoulders is entirely unhelpful to her development as a human being. Because basically what you’re doing is setting the bar so high that anything other than being a multiple Grand Slam champion is constituted as a failure.”

Hopefully Raducanu missed that piece as she and her team did their best to keep her in the moment.

“I haven’t spent that much time on my phone, checked any of the news,” she said Tuesday. “We’ve just been in our bubble, doing our own thing, focusing on the process, doing everything that’s in our power and control to get myself ready for the match ahead.”

It was a match she was unable to finish, but the reassuring thing is that the next time she plays at Wimbledon, she will have firsthand knowledge of what to expect.