Meet Lulu Sun, the Kiwi qualifier who is taking Wimbledon by storm

WIMBLEDON — Lulu Sun’s run to the quarterfinals has been one of the feel-good stories of this year’s Wimbledon.

Ranked No 123 and coming into just her second Grand Slam, the 23-year-old beat home hope Emma Raducanu on Sunday to reach the last eight as a qualifier, and has won more in prize money (£375,000) than in the rest of her career combined (£244,868).

She has a Chinese mother and a Croatian father, plus a stepdad from Devon. She was born and grew up in the tiny town of Te Anau in New Zealand at the very bottom of the globe and moved to Switzerland aged five after a brief spell in China. Sun speaks three languages, English, French and Mandarin, and in March switched her nationality to New Zealand — partly so she could represent the country at the Olympics this summer.

Before that she studied political science at the University of Texas, where she led the tennis team to the NCAA championship and was so conscientious that she completed her degree in three, rather than four years. “She’s a working machine,” says her former mentor at Texas, Howard Joffe, the head coach for the women’s tennis team there.

Sun is the first New Zealand woman to make the quarterfinals here and her success is big news back home, even overshadowing the rugby union All Blacks’ win over England at the weekend.

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Sun’s forehand was devastating against Raducanu (Frey/TPN/Getty Images)

A lefty with a punishing forehand who has shown great efficiency at the net over the last few weeks, Sun’s ranking will soar to inside the world’s top 40 if she can beat Donna Vekic in the quarterfinal. Off the court, those who know her best describe her as having a great sense of humour and not taking herself or life too seriously. A gifted artist, her team laugh fondly at her habit for forgetting things, diligently picking them up after she has left them behind.

On the court, though, she is intense and completely focused, as she showed in how she regrouped to defeat Raducanu after losing the second set in front of a partisan home crowd on Centre Court.

On a balcony about 100 feet from there, her coach Vladimir Platenik told The Athletic on Monday that Sun has ambitions to be the very best. “When we started working together she told me that wants to win Grand Slams and be No 1 in the world,” he said, as he explained how they had remodelled her serve and backhand.

First up though is Vekic. Can she pull off another upset? Can she even go on and win the thing? “If she plays her best, she can be dangerous to any player,” says Platenik, who has coached top-10 players Belinda Bencic, Daria Kasatkina and Dominika Cibulkova.

This is how Sun went from being almost a complete unknown to having a chance of becoming the first qualifier to win Wimbledon in a matter of weeks.

Sun was born Lulu Radovcic in April 2001 in the South Island town of Te Anau, where her grandmother had bought a property a few years earlier. It has a population of less than 3,000 and, according to Sun, “practically more sheep and deer than people.”

She spent a few years there with her mum and grandma, who still lives there, before moving briefly to Shanghai. Aged five, Sun moved to Switzerland, enabling her to add French to the English and Mandarin she speaks. Sun is studying Korean and Japanese, and picked up some Spanish in school.

“Chinese obviously from my mum’s side is very disciplined, hard-working,” Sun said. “From my dad’s side, Croatian, he’s from the seaside, so very laid back and calm. I guess that’s a good combo.

“Also, I think from my mum’s side I get that I guess feistiness and competitiveness. And then the Swiss side is, like, neutral, yeah (laughing). Then from New Zealand I get that adventure side.”

Sun’s mum always emphasised the importance of education, and after attending high school in Switzerland, Sun decided to go to American university in 2019. She’d been playing juniors and had always thought she’d go straight into the pro tour but after picking up an injury, she decided to change her plans. Joffe, the Texas head coach and a former pro, made a compelling pitch and Sun says that she was “in awe” of Austin. “I loved it so much that I was like, ‘Wow, this is a school that’s so big and they have everything.’ It was really amazing.”

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Sun silenced the home crowd in beating Raducanu (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Sun joined in August 2019, having just turned 18, and her colleagues remember someone who was extremely shy with an almost childlike voice. The COVID-19 pandemic scuppered her first tennis season, but in May 2021 she won the decisive match against Taisiya Pachkaleva in the final against Pepperdine. Sun was competing as the No 3 singles player, behind Peyton Stearns, the American who cracked the world’s top 50, and Italy’s Anna Turati, who is ranked just inside the world’s top 500.

Sun won the final having claimed the first set but lost the second — something that had happened in her round of 16, quarterfinal and semifinal matches.

“I could see the tension in her the night before the final and thought, ‘I’ve seen this movie many times,’” says Joffe. “The night before the final Lulu, who is the least assertive person, came to me and asked if I’d be on her court. Which in her language is, ‘I really need you on my court.’

“The moment she lost the second set and knowing we we were tied 3-3 overall, she turns to me and says in her very assertive voice, ‘I don’t have any more energy.’ For me everything crystalised in that moment because I knew she had the energy but the emotional energy had been taken away. I just said to her, ‘Lulu your whole team is depending on you, your mum and dad are depending on you. But none of that matters. Don’t do it for them or us. How about if you just do it for Lulu?’ She popped up with a renewed energy and then was involved in the most ferocious set of tennis I’ve ever seen. She won it 7-5 in the third set (the match lasted just over four hours).

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Joffe passing on advice to Sun (Credit: University of Texas athletics)

“It was a lovely moment because we won but also demonstrated what we do with the kids to try to bring them along as people and figure out how they’re resourced and unleash those resources on the game.

“For Lulu, it was about how she could emotionally frame tennis in a way that worked for her. Not for her parents or anyone else, but for her.”

Joffe remains in awe of Lulu’s ability to multitask and the fact she did a four-year degree in three — athletes often take five because they are juggling their sporting commitments.

“She would train the tennis incredibly hard, incredibly focused and then would be on the laptop extra hours all the time,” he says. “Taking summer school online. She’s incredibly bright. Really smart, as well as being tenacious and resilient.

“When she won the NCAAs, summer school had started and she was on her computer every day studying after matches. That was pretty unheard of.”

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(Credit: University of Texas athletics)

Joffe has delighted in seeing a once shy young girl come out of her shell. She is still a natural introvert, and on Friday in the press room she was clearly surprised that so many people wanted to hear from her. She is still softly spoken, but has come a long way since Joffe used to be firm with her about the fact that press interest and answering media questions would be a part and parcel of the job.

Joffe waxes lyrical about her dry, ironic sense of humour and her skill as an artist, and laughs at her love of Disney movies. Tennis-wise, it was her forehand that stood out and her ability to play an uncomplicated, efficient game.

Sun didn’t play for Texas in her final year as she wanted to play tour-level matches, and after graduating in 2022 almost qualified for Wimbledon, losing in the final round in three sets. Then came the customary grind of Futures and Challenger-level matches until an injury last summer checked her progress. A key moment in her trajectory came in October last year when, ranked around 250 in the world, she linked up with Platenik. He had worked with players like Ajla Tomljanovic, Cibulkova and Kasatkina and had a track record of taking players from outside the world’s top 200 towards the upper echelons of the sport.

Sun spent the off-season with him running up and down snowy mountains in his native Slovakia, along with a fitness coach he recommended, before moving to warmer climes in Florida. Working on her endurance was a big part of their early work together.

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Platenik has taken Sun to the next level (Charlie Eccleshare/The Athletic)

Platenik loved her attitude and commitment but there were areas of her game that he had concerns about. Firstly they got to work on tweaking her “very weird” serve, which he didn’t like the mechanics of. It has developed into a smoother, more reliable option. Platenik is a big advocate for a closed rather than an open-stance backhand, believing the former gives you more power. Sun is a “very quick learner” he says, and has thrown herself into transforming these areas of her game. She is playing with more intensity, appreciating that shots that used to go for winners at college level will come back and need to be put away.

Sun saw some instant results by qualifying for her first Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January, losing in the first round to Elisabetta Cocciaretto. It was around this time that she made a decision about her international future. A couple of weeks before the Australian Open, Sun played in the ASB Classic in Auckland, and was cheered on through qualifying and into the second round by fans who knew of her Kiwi background. She had conversations with representatives from Tennis New Zealand about switching back to the country she had represented as a junior.

In March, Sun confirmed the switch — incentivised in no small part by the carrot of being able to represent the country at this summer’s Olympics in Paris (she will play doubles and is on the alternate list for singles). “It wasn’t an easy decision because it never is when you have to choose between two things,” she said last week. “Even now, I’m still grateful for everything that Swiss tennis has done in my junior career. At the same time I’m also grateful for Tennis New Zealand for their support.”

Since then Sun has still largely been battling it out at events below the main WTA Tour. She tried and failed to qualify for the French Open.

Before Wimbledon, she worked on improving her volleys for the grass-court season — something that has paid big dividends over the last couple of weeks. Sun won 23 out of 27 points at the net in her second-round win against Yuliia Starodubtseva, and was excellent there against Raducanu on Sunday (23 from 28). The contrast with the Brit, who never looks comfortable at the net, was striking. “We talked about not hesitating about going forward because she has the game for it,” Platenik says. “But we need to make it perfect.

After beating Raducanu, she revealed she had studied footage of Roger Federer, Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf competing at the All England Club — where they were all champions — to hone her grass-court skills. “It was just amazing to watch them,” Sun said. “(I) was just taking it all in and trying to do that in my game.”

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Sun meets Raducanu at the net after beating her (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

But her own Wimbledon was almost over before it had begun. In the second round of qualifying she was match point down against Czech Republic’s Gabriela Knutson, before squeaking through in a final set tie-break. These are the tiny margins that can have career-defining outcomes.

Into the main draw, Sun was joined by her mum and stepdad from Geneva and sister Phenomena Radovcic, a 25-year-old who played a few Futures events herself. Sun has a couple of younger half-brothers, who are promising golfers.

At the start of Wimbledon, anything was a bonus. Joffe was planning on coming to Wimbledon for the junior events which start in the second week and joked to Sun that he expected her to still be at the event. She laughed at the ridiculousness of the idea.

But match by match it became less outlandish. In the first round Sun knocked out the No 8 seed Qinwen Zheng, before taking out Starodubtseva and then Zhu Lin (watched on Court 15 by the president of Texas University who she caught up with afterwards) to set up the date with Raducanu. A woman who also has a Chinese mum, eastern European dad and won her second Grand Slam event as a qualifier.

Sun played the match as fearlessly as Raducanu approached her 2021 US Open run. She spoke with her team beforehand about not just going out to enjoy the experience, but to believe that she would win. There were tight moments but the way she came back after losing the second set in front of a raucous home crowd delighted Joffe, watching on vacation in Montana having decided against coming over to London. “Look at how she was able to take the punches — for a lot of players the disappointment of losing the second set having been the better player for much of it would have been too great,” he says.

Joffe noticed how Raducanu couldn’t read where the Sun forehand was going. “There was too much variety and disguise. She can play a very big game against anyone in my mind.”

In her box, Emily Carter, head of high performance for Tennis New Zealand, was struck by her fighting spirit. “Since she’s started playing for us in March I’ve been so impressed by her attitude — she’s really humble and hard working. It’s really refreshing to see that.”

Sun ended the match with 52 winners — no woman has hit more in a match this tournament. Raducanu hit 19.

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(HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP via Getty Images)

In the post-match debrief, which Sun led, she acknowledged that she had started going to Raducanu’s forehand too much in the second set and become a bit predictable. Sun said that she had started to become a bit impatient. Ultimately it didn’t matter as she dusted herself down and reset impressively in the decider.

On her off-day on Monday, Sun was feeling a little sore having played and won seven matches in the space of a couple of weeks, four of which have been three-setters. But she knows she has a chance against Vekic, who will be the favourite and hasn’t always dealt well with pressure.

Whatever happens, this will be a career-altering few weeks for Sun. Even if she loses, she’ll be ranked just outside the world’s top 50, guaranteeing her entry into the Grand Slams and the biggest events for pretty much the next year. That presents a huge opportunity to a player who had been slugging it out in tennis’s lower reaches until now.

Platenik loves working with Sun and the atmosphere within the team, which among others includes a hitting partner who she is close to. Sun likes to take them out to Asian restaurants at the various places they visit and they enjoy her sense of humour and self-deprecation. Her ability to laugh at herself for constantly forgetting things — be it her towel, or her shoes, or even her racket.

Platenik is excited about the next few months as hard courts are where Sun believes she is at her best. A world of possibilities is suddenly opening up.

Runs like this can sometimes be a springboard to something far greater, but just as often they can look like an anomaly. Sun is determined to make this Wimbledon the former.

And at around 6am local time in Montana on Tuesday, her old coach Joffe will be tuning in to see if she can keep the dream alive for a couple more days.

(Photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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