After a British summer packed with sporting emotion and fresh, ambitious young role models, an 18-year-old tennis player named Emma Raducanu came through with the most monumental encore possible.
We've had British sporting heroes from all walks of life shine on sport's biggest stages these past few months, while championing diversity and showing the country that success can go hand-in-hand with vulnerability, and Raducanu was the latest example.
Britain's youngsters now have a rich, diverse, inclusive group of sporting heroes to look up to. But they're all "us" on certain levels, or perhaps the idealised version of who we want to be: articulate, funny and relatable. We all laughed in disbelief with Raducanu as she racked up set after set at the US Open this past fortnight. We winced as she got her knee patched up before the deciding points in the final against Leylah Fernandez. We held our collective breath as she served at championship point. And then we all roared as she banged down the ace of all aces to clinch the most unexpected of trophies. Our collective disbelief was visibly matched by Raducanu, who could barely make sense of it all.
Just three weeks ago Raducanu was at her high school picking up her A-Level results (she achieved grades of A* in Maths, A in Economics) and then she went to her prom. She then qualified for the US Open and ended up winning the whole thing, and became the only qualifier in tennis history to do so.
She never even lost a set, nor was taken to a tiebreak, across all 10 matches in New York. It's an unfathomable sporting narrative, and through it she became the epitome of staying true to yourself, while achieving at the highest level.
Her feat followed a summer where England's men reached the final of football's Euro 2020 championship. They succeeded on the pitch, but also stuck resolutely to their principles and responsibilities through sending anti-racist messages pre-game, taking a knee despite being booed by some of their own fans.
They left a lasting legacy, both one of acceptance and equality, but also the message you can succeed regardless of where you're from or who you are.
Imagine being a young footballer growing up near Wembley Stadium now; knowing someone like Raheem Sterling made it to sport's biggest stage having grown up in the shadow of the arch. Then there's Marcus Rashford, a young lad from Manchester, who challenged the U.K. government over their treatment of child food poverty and caused them to change governmental policy. Then there's Bukayo Saka, the son of Nigerian parents, who stepped up to take the key penalty in the shootout against Italy in the final, missed it, and was subjected to racist abuse on social media as a result. If that was a reminder of how far we still have to go, there followed a mark of how far we've come: Saka's next appearance came as a substitute in a friendly for his club side Arsenal against Tottenham, their bitter local rivals. He received a standing ovation as he came on in a clear message of support from fans of all clubs and colours.
Then came the Olympics and Paralympics where the Tokyo Games overflowed with inspirational stories. Youngsters could dream of being Keely Hodgkinson who was all of us when she said "what the f***?!" as she computed winning her silver medal. Her additional prize? A drive in an Aston Martin DB5.
Then there was Tom Daley. He provides hope to so many through being him: the young man who coped with the grief of losing his father, navigating his own sexuality and now embracing life as a father. He's the LGBTQ+ champion, knitter and Olympic gold medallist.
Meanwhile, Ellie Robinson may not have been one of Great Britain's 124 medalists at the Paralympics, but her four-minute interview post-race was something that should be played in schools up and down the land for its message of determination and resilience through adversity.
As she assessed her fifth-place finish in the S6 50m butterfly, she spoke of how she had managed the pain caused by Perthes' disease to battle into the final in what she called a "story of triumph, not a story of defeat.
"Even though I have deteriorated physically, and my hip is in a very bad way, I think I am mentally stronger than ever," Robinson said after the race. "I am so proud of where I am. I don't want this to be a story of sorrow and heartbreak, I want this to be a story of triumph because it is. I did what I wanted to do and I finished on my own terms and proved to myself that I had it in me."
These heroes taught us to accept vulnerability, not to hide away, and to keep on persevering, something even Raducanu can attest to. The 18-year-old's US Open run wasn't completely unheralded; granted a wild card for her home event at Wimbledon earlier in the summer, she dazzled throughout the first week and headlined Centre Court on Manic Monday, handed the prime time slot against Ajla Tomljanovic. It ended not only in bitter disappointment, but confusion and concern as Raducanu was forced to withdraw due to dizziness and struggling to breathe.
Through the fallout, dissection and analysis, she acted with immense dignity, and a level-head way beyond her years. But she didn't hide away, and carried on. She went to the football, she went to the British Grand Prix and sat in a Formula One car. She was living her dream, while giving others license to take hope and inspiration.
Then came the US Open. Three weeks after her high school prom, she went through qualifying in front of a handful of spectators. She had lost her Air Pods -- she wanted to win enough matches to buy some new ones. So she kept on clocking up the victories.
The hype grew. But she stayed anchored in the moment, and close to those she trusted. As the matches came and went, she stayed focused in her hotel room, playing phone tennis with her parents on WhatsApp as they missed each other's calls, listening to jazz and watching Formula One. And she smiled all the while.
Even as she was sitting there a few points off winning the US Open, she clutched an air conditioning pipe next to her seat like it was something for comfort, kept that thousand-mile stare, looked to courtside commentator Tim Henman for the odd moment of inspiration and then wrote her name in history. She celebrated by eating frozen yoghurt. And she did so while thousands of miles away from her biggest supporters: her parents.
In an 18 month period where we were all separated from our loved ones due to COVID-19, Raducanu only had a handful of familiar faces in the crowd in New York. Her parents couldn't fly due to the restrictions in place, so she achieved the proudest moment of her career surrounded mainly by strangers. But she didn't bemoan this once: it's part of life.
She spoke afterwards of how her background and parents had kept her grounded -- don't expect her to blow her $2.5 million windfall on a spate of glitz and glamour. Raducanu's Instagram bio reads: "London/Toronto/Shenyang/Bucharest." Her mother Renee is from China, her father Ian from Romania, while Emma was born in Canada. "I think the confidence comes from just inner belief," she told British Vogue.
"[My parents are] very tough to please and have high expectations ... so that's a big driving factor as to why I want to perform. My mum comes from a Chinese background, they have very good self-belief. It's not necessarily about telling everyone how good you are, but it's about believing it within yourself. I really respect that about the culture."
Even back in the early stages of Wimbledon, she was growing a new fanbase -- both locally in the U.K. and in China. After her triumph in New York, she spoke in perfect Mandarin to a Chinese TV station, all while she clutched her new prize.
The front pages of British newspapers on Monday all had Raducanu's beaming face shining out. She won't see them yet, as she plans to do some sightseeing before returning to a new level of stardom in Britain. Raducanu, like Rashford, Robinson and Daley, have shown that being yourself is a strength, not a weakness.
"I definitely think it's the time to just switch off from any future thoughts or any plans, any schedule," she added. "I've got absolutely no clue. Right now, no care in the world, I'm just loving life."