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Katie Boulter replacing Emma Raducanu at top of British tennis is great for both

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Boulter is at a career-high after her victory at the San Diego Open while Raducanu will relish the chance to go under the radar

March 4, 2024 2:00 pm(Updated March 5, 2024 8:39 am)

There is a new star of British tennis. Well, not that new. Just an old star finally starting to shine.

It seems rather inappropriate to be calling Katie Boulter old at 27, but it is now six years since she first won a round at Wimbledon and alerted the Great British public to her obvious talents.

Victory in San Diego on Sunday night over Marta Kostyuk bagged Boulter her first 500-level title – only 1000 events and grand slams are bigger – and moved her up to No 27 in the world, a career-high.

She will have a few days off now before heading to Indian Wells, the first half of the American “Sunshine Double” with Miami, where she will be the leading British hope on the women’s side.

Only 12 months ago, that was a burden shouldered by Emma Raducanu, the 2021 US Open champion still trying to get anywhere near those heights again.

“I don’t think just being tough on her or critical on her like any other player [is wrong],” Raducanu’s agent Max Eisenbud told former world No 1 Andy Roddick’s podcast this week.

“But she is still figuring it out. I just think that people should not be malicious.”

It is instructive that Eisenbud, who ran Maria Sharapova’s career so successfully, is coming out of the shadows to speak publicly about Raducanu’s plight. The British sporting public have a distinct “what have you done for me lately?” attitude to stardom, and Raducanu’s two seasons since the fairytale in New York have had few high points. She will surely welcome a British distraction.

By never having hit the same highs, Boulter has avoided the sharper end of criticism too. A first-week distraction at Wimbledon before the serious stuff later in the tournament was as much of an impact as she usually made on the British summer’s showpiece tennis event, until she won many hearts by dedicating a second-round win in 2022 to her grandmother, who passed away only two days before.

She is no Raducanu, but Boulter is not a stranger to the public eye. She has nearly a quarter of a million Instagram followers and spoke earlier this year about struggling to walk down the street uninterrupted with her boyfriend, Australian No 1 Alex de Minaur, who also won a title this weekend before zipping across from Mexico to San Diego.

“I want to say a small special thank you to my boyfriend,” Boulter said. “He finished last night at midnight and I really want to embarrass him. He got a 4.15am taxi this morning and six o’clock flight to be here today, so I do appreciate it.”

As well as a settled and rather heart-warming relationship with the likeable Aussie, the British No 1 has the luxury of experience and perspective. Unlike Raducanu, catapulted to fame by one miraculous summer, Boulter has had to grind her way up.

Only a few months after finally breaking the top 100 in April 2019, she suffered a stress fracture in her back which sidelined her for nearly seven months. Her ranking plummeted, she dropped out of the top 300, and then the pandemic hit. Having been 88 in the world in April 2019, it took her four years to return to that level last June.

“It’s been slow and steady progress [so] it doesn’t feel overwhelming in the moment when you have these big wins,” said Laura Robson, former British No 1 and now a Sky Sports pundit.

“She’s improved her movement so much, and I think a lot of people didn’t expect to miss the Middle Eastern swing. She missed Doha and Dubai [in February] because she knew she wanted quite a big training block going into these American tournaments and what a difference it’s made. Physically she is looking stronger than ever.”

Assuming Boulter stays fit – a perennial problem since a back injury that threw her whole body out of kilter – “the sky is the limit,” according to Robson.

Certainly her explosive game and big serve, belted down way above her six-foot frame, make her a tricky prospect for any player, and she is likely to be seeded at the French Open and Wimbledon now, giving her protection from the very top players in the early rounds and helping her maintain a position in the top 30.

Optimism must be tempered though. Wins against top-20 players are still few and far between for Boulter so far, with only four in her whole career, although one was earned in January against then world No 5 Jessica Pegula and another this week in a three-set battle with Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia.

But her meetings with the world’s elite leave much to be desired. She won just two games against Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon last year and only four against Coco Gauff in Montreal. Boulter says she took much from a straight-sets loss to double Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka in Beijing last year because it was 7-5 7-6, but it was a thin silver lining.

A decade ago, she told one newspaper interviewer “my main goal is to be top 10”, having already achieved it in the juniors.

And fans will now ask if Boulter is truly capable of that, given her record against players proven at that calibre. At least now, she has the chance.

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