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The Empress and the Empresses’ New Clothes

Emma Raducanu’s incredible win at the US Open tennis Grand Slam ranks as one the most accomplished British sporting victories ever. In fact, bearing in mind her winning as a qualifier, she’s still only 18 and she’s hardly played on the senior circuit, it probably does top the lot.

Watching Emma play there is no doubt, as no less a tennis icon as Martina Navratilova has said, she is the real tennis deal. Dynamic around the court, hitting the ball as hard as anything, sussing out her opponents, taking risks, Emma played the US Open like a true champion all the way through. She didn’t just win her matches, she almost annihilated everyone and never dropped a set.

So soon a Grand Slam winner, Emma also has everything a world-class athlete needs to keep the world at her feet – great looks, charm, intelligence, a way with words… she even speaks Mandarin as befits her part-Chinese heritage. And, with corporate deals with Nike, Chanel and now Tiffany’s, as a brand ambassador, the age of Raducanu has well and truly arrived.

What struck me as she blitzed the field at Flushing Meadow was the sheer level of talent Raducanu exhibited. Her standard of play was astonishing and watching her smash pass after pass, turn losing rallies into winners and fight with every inch of her being to win, you knew you were witnessing something very special, someone playing at the highest sporting level. How right that her winning shot was an ace.

So, compare Emma’s extraordinary performance in tennis with others in another women’s sport, one which, certainly at this moment in the UK is receiving far more TV and public attention and sheer hype than tennis has ever achieved, outside of Wimbledon at any rate. Football.

Women’s football is currently enjoying unprecedented appeal and its players and clubs are getting at times almost as much coverage and adulation as the men’s game. World Cups have been televised, the Woman’s Super League (WSL) is well-established and former players are making big careers for themselves as soccer pundits and across the media.

Women’s football in the UK and across the world has improved immensely over the last twenty years and especially, I would say, over the last ten to five. The level of fitness has shot up, there is much more technical skill and players’ competitiveness is keen. The interest in football, especially with girls, is a wonderful thing.

However, at a world-class level, the standard of football by women is inescapably below that in comparison to other women’s sports – for example, athletics, golf, netball, equestrianism (shared with men) and, of course, tennis.

Watching a women’s top London derby the other day, one side winning by about four clear goals, the play was littered with mistakes and simple bad football. Errors and cock-ups of a kind and regularity you simply would not see at the highest level in tennis. Sure, Emma Raducanu would have made various errors in any given set at the US Open but if she had displayed the type or number of mistakes as in the derby she probably wouldn’t have got further that the first round.

Women’s football is improving all the time and that’s fantastic. I’ve watched and supported women’s sport for decades and want women’s football to reach the highest levels it can. But, no amount of media hype, TV pundits telling us players are ‘sensational’ and the generation of fake excitement about games alters the truth that the standard of play by women in football at the present time languishes behind that produced by top tennis, golf, cycling, athletics and other sportswomen.

At the recent Olympics in Japan, women produced amazing performances in lesser-touted sports than football – BMX racing, skateboarding, trampolining, hockey etc – but women’s error-strewn football continues to somehow be placed above them.

Inevitably, it is the pull of the world game that is football. There is so much money and power associated with the sport that women can no longer be left out, as players and to a great extent as supporters (though women have always closely followed football). The women’s game has achieved a money-spinning tipping point. Whatever the standard of play on show, women’s football can generate cash and with that comes all the hype and overkill that the actual performances on the pitch do not merit when compared to those in other sports. And, in the case of Emma Raducanu at the US Open by a significant margin.

Women’s football will get there. But at the moment the hype is world-class, not the play.

Meanwhile Emma Raducanu’s Grand Slam win stands to be the first of many in a career where every star is aligned in her favour. She is a real talent who has already proved it at the highest level.

A real ‘real deal’.

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