Emma Raducanu and our conflicted relationship with talent

Emma Raducanu during her first round win over Stefanie Voegele in the 2021 US Open. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

In what turned out to be the penultimate point of her win over Stefanie Voegele in the first round of the US Open, Emma Raducanu declared her genius. It came during during an excruciatingly tense moment. Having brought herself to the brink of a straight-sets win, Raducanu had suffered an attack of nerves on her serve as she tried to close out the match, dropping six match points. Now, forced back to deuce once more, she allowed Voegele to engage her in another rally, which Voegele might have won when she floated a lob over her opponent, as Raducanu approached the net. The ball sailed high and across Raducanu’s body so that she could only reach for it with her backhand. Voegele moved towards the right of the court, ready to pounce on the inevitably weak return. But Raducanu had a different idea. Instead of trying to hit the ball down the line with whatever force she could muster, she improvised a delicate sliced drop shot, executed with her back to Voegele. The ball passed behind Raducanu to the left of the court, dropped obediently just over the net, and skipped out of play. Voegele might as well have been standing in Brooklyn for all the hope she had of reaching it. As the crowd on court 17 erupted in amazement, Raducanu smiled and placed her hand over her face, covering her eyes, as if she could hardly believe what she had just done.

In Britain, we have a habit of over-hyping our sporting achievements, but Emma Raducanu’s victory at US Open may not have been hyped enough. The more you look at it, the more improbable it gets. It’s not just that she is a teenager - teenagers do win grand slams, albeit rarely. It’s - well, where to begin?

Raducanu was the first female qualifier to reach a grand slam semi-final - let alone a final, let alone to win it. She was seeded 31 in qualifying - in total there were 62 players ranked above her. She never dropped a set, in qualifying or the tournament proper. Let’s say that again: she never dropped a set. She never even had to fight a tie break! This was only her second grand slam, her first being this year’s Wimbledon; by winning it she shattered a record previously held by Monica Seles, who played in three grand slams before winning the 1990 French Open. Even compared to other top players of her age, Raducanu had until this year scant experience of any professional tournaments (partly due to the pandemic, partly because she devoted time to her education). Now here she is, the first British female grand slam winner since Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Opposition.

What happened last Saturday in New York was a true black swan (“nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility”). I thought that Leicester winning the Premier League was the most freakishly unpredictable sporting event of my lifetime, but this exceeds it, and without getting into speculation about Raducanu’s future, I suspect that for her it will not be a one-off. There was such poetry to its culmination, too; Leylah Fernandez, Raducanu’s tournament co-star, played a full part in making the final an inspiring rebuke to the atrocity that took place in the same city, on the same date, September 11, twenty years before, back when neither player was born.

Raducanu’s white hot form came as a shock to everyone - including, delightfully, Raducanu. “I have started sliding, which I didn’t know I could do actually,” she said, after beating Bencic in the quarter-final (sliding into a shot means you can get back to the centre of the court more quickly). “I didn’t expect to be here at all. My flights were booked at the end of qualifying.” She still had the irresistible grin which greeted the world at Wimbledon but her game had palpably evolved, even in that short time. On court in New York she projected a steely authority verging on arrogance, all but blowing smoke away from an invisible gun as she strode away from another forehand assassination. She was forensic about her opponent’s weaknesses, targeting a nervous second serve or slightly flaccid backhand with cheerful sadism. Her fierce returns of serve petrified her more experienced opponents into getting their mistakes in first.

It was wondrous to see someone reaching further beyond herself from match to match and sometimes from game to game, her talent opening up like a rose. Much of this happened without Raducanu seeming to will it; her finest, most creative shots were not so much played as channelled. For British viewers, the overall sensation of watching her play was an almost entirely unfamiliar one: deep confidence that she would make it. We are programmed to expect our sporting heroes to be mentally fragile. We wait nervously for the old anxieties to kick in and the self-sabotage to begin, and it usually does - see Andy Murray, see even Southgate’s young England team. With Raducanu there was not a trace of this. She made errors, she got jittery from time to time, but her shotmaking felt as secure as bank vaults, and there was a blitheness to her demeanour that suggested someone so at ease with failure that she wouldn’t waste a second contemplating it.

It wasn’t simply that she had the strength and technique to consistently play killer shots, it was that she almost always knew exactly which shot to pick in the moment. Even when going through a rough patch, as she did at the start of her match against Bencic, it became apparent that, rather than freezing, she was figuring out what to do. You got a sense of a high-powered brain processing data, running calculations, recalibrating. After these adjustments, she would embark on hot streaks of domination, winning four, eight, ten games in a row. How does anyone know how to do that without the experience of hundreds of top-level games to draw on?

Look, I’m not a tennis expert, but speak to anyone who is, or just listen to the way that ex-players talk about her, and you see that they are astonished, intoxicated, reeling. Not just at the result, but at the sudden, wildly precocious completeness of Raducanu’s game. There is something Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads about it - like maybe she consorted with the devil at a roundabout on the A21 into Bromley. Wherever it came from and however it arrived, Raducanu has a prodigious gift. Plainly, she has poured many hours of work into making the most of her gift. But while there are many reasons that the country and much of the world now adore Raducanu - her brilliance, her beauty, her exuberance, her evident decency - the primary one is that she so fully incarnates natural talent.

It must be weird for older British players, toiling away for years on the professional circuit, to have been leapfrogged this decisively. It might be a little discombobulating even for our greatest player, Andy Murray, holder of three grand slams. Murray represents a different archetype of achievement, one which is all about the struggle against adversity, the gritty, sweaty, dogged will to overcome. On TV, Murray was asked what advice he would give Raducanu before her upcoming semi-final. Most people, he said, would tell her to go out there and enjoy herself, but in practice that’s hard to do when the pressure is on. She should focus on what might go wrong - losing the first set, throwing away a break of serve - and prepare for how to recover from it. This is both very smart, very useful advice, and very Andy Murray.

Shortly after the final, I listened to tennis pundits contrast the way they felt about Raducanu’s win with how they felt the last time a British person won the US Open - Murray’s 2012 victory over Novak Djokovic. It was Murray’s first grand slam championship win, after competing in grand slams for seven years and losing in four finals. They recalled being very happy for Murray, as we all were, but that the main feeling was relief - whereas with Raducanu, it was joy. Pure, unalloyed joy.

We laud effortful achievement. We prefer effortless superiority.

In 2011 the psychologist Chia-Jung Tsay presented 103 study participants with written descriptions of two classical pianists. One pianist was described as having innate ability (the “natural”); the other was described as someone who had worked extremely hard to develop her ability (the “striver”). The participants, who were a mix of experts and laypeople, were then played a recording attributed to each musician and invited to say which they rated more highly. Before doing so, they were asked for their views on musical achievement. Most of them stated that training and practice were more important than talent. But their ratings showed that they preferred the natural over the striver - and of course, they had been played exactly the same recording.

Tsay called this “naturalness bias”. Unsure if it applied only to artists, she performed a similar experiment, this time with entrepreneurs making pitches. She got a similar result: participants, especially if they were founders or investors, rated the same business proposal higher if they had been told it was from a natural rather than a striver. Our culture has a deeply ambivalent relationship to excellence. We prefer to attribute it to hard work, yet find ourselves inexorably drawn to stories of innate talent. We admire strivers, but we adore naturals.

One of the big publishing trends of the last couple of decades, in academia and in popular non-fiction, has consisted of variations on what you might call “the argument against talent”. It can be traced back to a now-classic 1989 paper by the sociologist and former swimming coach Daniel Chambliss, called “The Mundanity of Excellence”. Chambliss drew on his knowledge and experience of swimming competitions to explain why some swimmers are champions and others are also-rans (also-swams?). He proposed that elite swimmers are not born that way but become great by acquiring the right habits early on and embracing the unexciting work of getting a tiny bit better every day. (It’s an elegantly written paper, do read it). Here’s his argument against talent in one paragraph:

Excellence does not result from some special inner quality of the athlete. “Talent” is one common name for this quality; sometimes we talk of a “gift” or of “natural ability.” These terms are generally used to mystify the essentially mundane processes of achievement in sports, keeping us away from a realistic analysis of the actual factors creating superlative performances, and protecting us from a sense of responsibility for our own outcomes.

Chambliss’s argument must have felt radical and provocative at the time. Over the following years, it became familiar. In 1994, the psychologist Anders Ericsson published an even more influential paper which stated, “The traditional view of talent, which concludes that successful individuals have special innate abilities and basic capacities, is not consistent with the reviewed evidence”.

In 2008, Malcolm Gladwell featured Ericsson’s research in Outliers, which popularised the “10,000-hour rule” (broadly speaking, the idea that it takes an average of ten thousand hours of deliberate practice for someone to reach mastery). The idea that talent is overrated became mainstream. Matthew Syed’s bestselling 2011 book Bounce was subtitled “the myth of talent and the power of practice”. You can see elements of the argument against talent in most of the other popular recent ideas about achievement, like growth mindset, grit, or marginal gains.

There is a long-running debate over the empirical evidence on this complex question and in truth none of the anti-talent theories can quite stand up their strongest claims. The boring answer - that exceptional achievement usually results from exceptional innate ability allied to exceptionally hard work - turns out to be boringly true. Of course, there are plenty of interesting nuances, but I’m not going to review the evidence in any detail here (David Epstein is good on it if you want to read further). I’m more interested in why the argument against talent, justified or otherwise, has been so culturally resonant. I can see at least three reasons.

First, it accords with the egalitarian, hierarchy-flattening spirit of the age. We are suspicious of elites or elitism of any kind. Once you set your mind against unearned privilege, it’s a short step to believing that nobody is born to be a champion or a great musician; that everyone has the potential to be as successful as anyone else. Chambliss nods to the idea of taking responsibility for our own actions, and there an old-fashioned moral aspect to this attitude too, a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It feels right, it feels just, that the highest rewards should go to those who persevere.

Second, it is good for business. If talent is innate, then you can’t buy it, and nobody ever got rich selling something that can’t be bought. If what we call talent is in fact a matter of how we behave and what we believe then the free market is very much here to help. It can sell you books on the right mindset, it can sell you shoes that give you an edge and help you believe in yourself, it can sell you devices and apps to organise your practice and track your improvement.

Third, and related to that last, it is reassuringly technocratic. It meets a certain desire to have everything explained and formularised, made routine and transparent. Chambliss describes talent as a mystification of “the essentially mundane processes of achievement”. He was writing at a time when software had only begun its long munch through our economies and through our minds, but when he talks about mundane processes, he is essentially proposing that talent is algorithm in disguise. It makes sense for coaches and athletes to think about it this way too, so that the athlete’s development can be organised into units of clearly achievable progress.

Despite the power of the argument against talent, it has, remarkably, never quite overcome our deep-rooted attachment to the idea that there is something mysterious about the very highest level of excellence; something that defies every effort to break it down into habits, practices and feats of willpower. We continue to stubbornly believe that there are human beings who have an indefinable superiority. We have not eradicated the intuition that talent is analogue, immaterial, and unfairly distributed, and that certain individuals have such an abundance of it that they can do unreachable, incomprehensible things.

200 years ago the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it like this: “The achievement of genius, on the other hand, transcends not only others’ capacity of achievement, but also their capacity of apprehension; therefore they do not become immediately aware of it. Talent is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot reach; genius is like the marksman who hits a target which others cannot even see.”

You can certainly find rational, post-hoc explanations for what Emma Raducanu achieved last weekend. You might reference the lack of truly dominant players in the women’s game right now, which makes it easier for new champions to break through. You can point to the luck of her draw, the way she never had to play any of the top ten seeds. You can do this, but ultimately it feels inadequate to account for what she did and how she did it. It feels puny, not remotely up to the task of accounting for a perfectly executed no-look drop volley on the backhand - hitting a target even she couldn’t see - when you’re one point away from victory in the first round of your second grand slam. Emma Raducanu resists explanation. She does not make sense. And that’s OK - in fact, it’s glorious. Genius can be such a joy.