Christine Truman: ‘Watching Emma Raducanu brought back that old tingle – at that age you think you can do anything’

Raducanu's heroics have stirred the memory bank for Truman

For Christine Truman, the experience of watching Emma Raducanu surge into the fourth round of Wimbledon was so intense and full of flavour that she felt like she was stepping into a time machine.

“It just brought back that old tingle,” Truman said on Sunday. “At that age, you think you can do anything. It’s part of being young and keen and living your dream. Everything you trained and worked for – when it comes good, it’s so much fun.”

Three British teenagers have previously reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in the Open era, which began in 1968. But for the last player as young as 18-year-old Raducanu, you have to go all the way back to the late 1950s, and Truman’s extraordinary teenage feats.

Strict age limits prevented Truman from competing at the All England Club until 1957. But as soon as her feet touched the hallowed grass, she unleashed her howitzer forehand and surged into the second week – which, in those days, meant the quarter-finals – for the loss of just 15 games.

When Truman then overcame the experienced American Betty Pratt on the second Tuesday, the Daily Mirror ran the front-page headline “Giant Killer”, while the Herald dubbed her “The Woodford whiz kid”. Only in the semi-finals did eventual champion Althea Gibson finally end her fairytale run.

Now aged 80, Christine Truman remains the sort of free spirit this country was built on: warm, grounded and wryly humorous

Credit: DANIEL JONES

“Princess Marina [the Duchess of Kent and then All England Lawn Tennis Club president] invited me for tea in the Royal Box that same afternoon,” Truman said. “I couldn’t understand it. I’d just lost. I didn’t think it was anything special to get to the semi-finals at 16.”

Over the past three years, Truman has been preparing a memoir – Miss Truman to Serve – that relates these and many other compelling stories. “I haven’t found a publisher yet,” she says. “Nobody seems to be interested unless you have had four abortions or five divorces.”

Editors should take note. Apart from being a major British sporting figure, Truman also entertained the nation through 34 years of BBC commentary stints. At 80, she remains the sort of free spirit this country was built on: warm, grounded and wryly humorous.

Truman's career highlight came when she won the 1959 French Open

Credit: AFP

Although Truman went out in the fourth round of Wimbledon in both the next two seasons, she pulled off her career highlight by winning the 1959 French Open. Then, in 1961, came her sliding-doors moment. Sixty years ago this Wednesday, Truman’s dramatic meeting with Angela Mortimer still represents the last time that two Britons faced off in a Wimbledon final.

At 29, Mortimer was chasing her third major. She was a delicate player, whose slow serve was compared by Ross McWhirter in the Evening News to “a bird with a broken wing”. Yet she was devastatingly quick across the ground: a terrier in Ted Tinling shorts.

Unusually for a final of that era, it was a brilliant match. But a cruel one for Truman, who was leading 6-4, 4-3, 40-30 when events took an unexpected turn. Only five more points and she would have grasped the Venus Rosewater Dish. Instead, her whole life changed in a split second.

“The ball hit the net cord, changed direction, and the court was wet,” Truman said, when I visited her last month in the coastal town of Aldeburgh, East Suffolk. “As I twisted to retrieve it, I felt a sharp pain up my leg. I had already hurt my Achilles tendon earlier in the year, when I went through the wooden floor of the British Embassy in Jamaica in my high heels. I thought I had aggravated it.

“There were no medical timeouts in those days,” she explained. “And my mother always said, ‘Don’t make a fuss, get up and get on with it.’ So I did, but I won about two points in the next five games. By the time I had my wits about me again – and realised I had only jarred my calf – it was too late. Angela wasn’t a dynamic player by any stretch of the imagination, but she was determined and took advantage of every chance she had. Quite rightly, she leapt ahead.” In the end, the score read 4-6, 6-4, 7-5 in Mortimer’s favour.

Truman does not think she will ever get over her 1961 Wimbledon final loss to Angela Mortimer

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“How long did it take you to get over it?” I asked. She looked at the floor for a second. “I don’t think I ever did get over it.”
It was a poignant moment. Truman has had a terrific life by any standard. She coached in Suffolk for 25 years. She married former Wasps rugby player Gerry Janes, and brought up four children. Her youngest, Amanda Janes Keen, was a British No 2 who also played at Wimbledon. Even so, it still eats away at her that she never got her hands on that dish.

“I was speaking to Des earlier,” she said of her old friend and fellow Wimbledon commentator Des Lynam, “and he said, ‘Christine, I don’t know why you didn’t win the damn thing’. And I replied, ‘Me too!’ I feel like shouting sometimes.

“After the final I took my foot off the pedal. Instead of turning down a date, I thought, ‘I can do it all.’ It took me about five years to realise that you can’t have a normal life as well. I never felt I was Christine Truman again – not the Christine Truman they put in Madame Tussauds anyway.

“I had been in three Wimbledon semi-finals and won a grand slam. I thought, ‘If you can do it once, you can do it again’. And then one day I understood that I was never going to win Wimbledon. That was sad, in a way.”

‘Even at 11, you could tell Raducanu was really special’ – Anne Keothavong

Emma Raducanu need fear no-one in the Wimbledon draw, according to Britain’s BJK Cup captain Anne Keothavong, who admitted on Saturday that “Emma’s tennis has just taken my breath away”.

Whatever the hopes surrounding Raducanu at the start of the fortnight, nobody could have imagined that she would storm into the second week without dropping a set. Today she faces Australia’s Alja Tomljanovic on Court No1 – the same venue where she overcame Romania’s Sorana Cirstea in such gripping style on Saturday.

The softly-spoken Raducanu is taking her Wimbledon adventure in her stride

Credit: GETTY IMAGES

“Every day this week, I’ve been asked, ‘Who’s your favourite [to win Wimbledon]?’ and I don’t dare mention a name,” said Keothavong. “It’s so unpredictable, which should give someone like Emma confidence. Everyone feels like they’ve got a chance.” 

And as for Raducanu’s long-term potential? “We’re talking top 10. She’s the real deal. I want to say ‘Let’s not get overexcited,’ but I’m getting really excited and I’m going to sound like a hypocrite. We should celebrate the success.”

There has been so much to admire in Raducanu’s first week at a major, but what stands out above all else is her switched-on professionalism.

So many young tennis players are fine athletes but underdeveloped people, having spent their formative years hitting balls instead of socialising or studying. They can be gormless, leaving all the important decisions to others, and only showing up for work when they’re told.

Teenager Emma Raducanu has brand power to become one of top earners in British sport

Even Britain’s best-performing male Cameron Norrie – an admirable player in many ways – needed a couple of wake-up calls to put him on track. It was only last year when – in the words of his coach – “he realised that he needed to take ownership of his career”.

Raducanu made the same mental leap at a far younger age. She is softly spoken and charming, but underneath her bright smile lies an ambitious soul. The daughter of a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, she has that “can-do” attitude that animates many an immigrant family.

Keothavong’s first meeting with Raducanu came seven years ago. She was studying for a coaching qualification alongside another former pro in Melanie South, and needed a couple of youngsters for a trial session. So a pair of 11-year-olds arrived at the National Tennis Centre for a hit, one of them a hotly tipped prospect from south-east London.

“It wasn’t like I had been hitting too many tennis balls after I retired,” Keothavong said. “But you suddenly thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I actually need to try and play as well as I can.’ I remember Mel and I were having to play doubles, we looked at each other and said ‘We have to go full-out here. They’re 11 years old, but they’re good.’

“I remember thinking Emma was really special,” Keothavong added. “Even then she had the game. She was looking to take the ball on the rise. You don’t see many 11-year-olds looking to play the way she did. She had fabulous timing. And she was just very self-assured.

“I have followed her career closely. She’s a real student of the game – someone who studies her opponent, and studies her own tennis. She’ll watch replays, she’ll watch videos and she’ll talk about it. And she’s curious. So she’s not shy about asking different people for bits of information and her dad is like that as well. They’re happy to tap into lots of different people and take what they want from it.”

For the last couple of years, Raducanu’s name – alongside that of Jack Draper – has been cited as the Next Big Thing in British tennis. It has been hard to judge the accuracy of this verdict, however, as she went 16 months from last April without appearing on the tour.

This week, it emerged that she made some vital technical tweaks during lockdown. The experienced Belgian coach Philippe Dehaes tinkered with her grip on the forehand, opening the racket face slightly, only to find himself stranded on the wrong side of the Channel by Covid and thus unable to supervise the transition.

Mark Petchey – the former British No1 who has recently renewed his old coaching partnership with Andy Murray – stepped into the breach at this point. It was Petchey who helped to push the forehand change through, while also recommending a longer racket and adjusting Raducanu’s service motion after another technical guru  –  Johanna Konta’s former coach Esteban Carril  – spotted a flaw.

With Nigel Sears now moving in as Raducanu’s full-time coach during the grass-court season, her career is the tennis equivalent of that African proverb which states “It takes a village to raise a child.”

A less intelligent player might have been confused by so many different inputs. But Raducanu has just finished A-levels in maths and economics, and is expected to come away with a pair of As or even A*s. Her ability to absorb information has impressed every one of her gurus.

“I watched her play a first round in Nottingham a couple of weeks ago,” said Keothavong, “and there has just been a huge improvement to what I’ve seen at Wimbledon this week. If she keeps on that same trajectory – and she’s able to stay fit and healthy – then she’s definitely going places.”

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