It’d take a certain level of curmudgeon not to have been even just a little bit taken by the women’s competition at the 2021 US (Tennis) Open, and the seemingly irresistible rise of Emma Răducanu. After all, here the winner was an 18 year old qualifier playing in her second Grand Slam having only been in the WTA main draw for 4 months (after a wildcard entry at Nottingham in June 2021). Class background aside, the summer of struggles and successes is more like the plot line of an improbable but emotionally powerful made-for-TV movie than professional sport. It becomes even more improbable when we see that she had beaten last month’s Olympic champion and didn’t drop a set in the two week competition, or when we saw (or learn) that she’d fallen worryingly at a key moment in the final, that she’d expected to be knocked out of the competition early on so that when she picked up the trophy her flight home was nearly a fortnight ago, and that her opponent in the final, Leylah Fernandez, was also a teenage (relative) newcomer. At the beginning of the summer neither was ranked in the top 50 (Răducanu was ranked 150), and both make their only slightly younger peer Coco Gauff, with a couple of seasons in the main draw under her belt, seem old at 17 (let alone Serena Williams who’d won four Grand Slams singles titles before Răducanu was born).
It’s a story that is crying out for mythologizing, fairy tale clichés from the sporting and other commentariat. Of course, we have had them with much of the coverage of Răducanu’s summer soaked in forms of awe at ‘magical runs’ combined with variously subtle and explicit infantilisation and denigration. Much of this was associated with her 4th round withdrawal at Wimbledon – although the assorted assertions of a lack of ‘resilience’ (a laudable virtue made dangerous by its appropriation in neo-liberal valorisation) look shallow, as do the patronising ‘cut her some slack, she’s just a kid’ (as opposed to a novice) approaches (which I found myself checking in my mid-summer responses, the infantilisation of women athletes is a powerful force).
The cliché that has been most prevalent in the UK (at least) is more insidious, in part because it is seemingly less problematic. Much of the discussion – in various media settings, across metaphorical (for those of us working from home) or actual water coolers and no doubt other settings – has included some version of the statement that ‘she came out of nowhere’. It’s easy for us to look at that and treat it as some kind of vacuous journalistic space filler, as a kind of ‘um’ before moving on to the next point of substance. Easy as that may be, it is dangerous: one of the really interesting things about clichés of this kind is not how often the commentariat use them, but how we take them for granted and therefore the sort of ideology-work they do.
The most obvious bit of ideology-work this phrase does is maintain the fantasy of sporting genius and meritocracy as a necessary explanation for the explosion on the scene of a previously unknown, prodigious new talent (sport is only one of many cultural industries that maintain this fantasy – music does something similar). Not only is this fantasy powerful, it is also a formative force in contemporary corporatized, capitalist sport – but before we go there, the phrase does at least two the things of note.
First, to use the ‘she came out of nowhere’ cliché as much as they do does no favours to the commentariat; it makes them seem unaware of the sport they are reporting on. In doing so, however, we can see a concealment of this ideology-work. The phrase invites an empirical response of the kind that goes: ‘OK, you may say that but you’re missing years of training, playing the circuit, county competitions and more’. This response is entirely factually correct – but facts are of little use in rebutting ideology with its common sense power and affective appeals to emotional truths. That ‘she came out of nowhere’ reinforces one of sports’ most powerful fantasies of ‘natural talent’ as being enough. Yet this in itself is among the least of the cliché’s dangers.
Second, that ‘she came out of nowhere’ can also be seen through the increasingly powerful discourse of ethno-nationalisms associated with the extreme right wing, fascist facilitating forces, in global politics, including the dominant fraction in Johnson’s Tory government that is shaping current British political discourse. The British are very keen to claim athletes as theirs, building of the fantasy of, with a couple of notable exceptions, having invented and exported sport in a fully formed manner to the rest of the world (they’re also good at blurring distinctions between British and English, but that’s another issue of persistent imperialism).
Răducanu is hard to fit into this ethno-nationalist fantasy of sporting Britishness, being of Chinese and Romanian descent and born in Canada. If the notion of a young woman standing in for the nation wasn’t problematic enough, her Chinese-Romanian heritage must be sending these ethno-nationalists into a spin. In the UK, China is being built up – much as it is elsewhere – as the major threat to ‘Western’ political, economic and cultural power and influence, even while it remains vital as a market, financial, investment and manufacturing source. What’s more, during the vicious frenzy of anti-immigrant claims in the lead up to Brexit, Romanian workers were high among the list of EU arrivals alleged to be threatening the British way of life (their absence from agricultural workforces since Brexit is a different story). The negative imagery of both states means that ‘coming out of nowhere’ allows Răducanu to be relatively smoothly hailed into Britishness: she is not racialized as problematic, but is safely ‘from nowhere’. That she is a tennis player is also a big part of this – the standing of tennis as a national marker means that it is unlikely that Fernandez, also Canadian born and of Ecuadorian and Filipino descent, would be as problematic in the Canadian context.
This problematic ethno-nationalist context sits alongside another form of racialisation in and of sport that gives the cliché its third and most insidious form of power, the one that sustains Whiteness. The subtext of the empirical response noted above is one that undercuts the fantasy of the dominance of ‘natural talent’ that has framed the myths of sport throughout modernity. This fantasy is most obvious in the way athletes of African descent as well as many Indigenous peoples are constructed – as vigorous, virile, licentious bodies where corporeal power is held to be a marker of intellectual limitations and must be constrained and ‘tamed’, appropriated and sidelined. This myth of ‘natural talent’ also sustains the normalisation of Whiteness as the defining reference point balancing body and mind, the physical and the intellectual, and casts athletes of colour, of majority world descent, as aberrant and in need of discipline and control.
That Răducanu is cast as ‘coming out of nowhere’ shifts her to this majority world descent group (racialized as not ‘really’ White, but in being from ‘nowhere’ able to be hailed into Whiteness). While the cliché allows her to be claimed as British it also implicitly (in its ideology-work) invokes this ambiguous Whiteness and therefore her ‘natural talent’ as the primary reason for her extraordinary success. This is a version of racialisation that sustains, in a complex relationship, the myth that athletes are not workers (including because they have ‘natural talent’) that is at the heart of many of the current struggles for justice in US college sport or that there is a genetic basis to racialized sporting participation and successes. It is a racialisation that underpins key aspects of contemporary capitalist sporting labour and its associated forms of exploitation.
The cliché’s power then lies in its appeal, first, to the myth of ‘natural talent’, second, to the deeply ingrained sense of sporting Whiteness allowing Răducanu to be accommodated as British and, third, to the power of sport’s meritocratic fantasy. The ideology-work of the ‘coming out of nowhere’ cliché points to the vital role of the commentariat in maintaining regimes of power through sport. It should also not distract from Răducanu’s success: I remain more than slightly in awe.