Emma Raducanu: My best is too good not to shine through

Raducanu celebrates after winning a point in Auckland
Emma Raducanu has been handed a kind first-round draw at this year's Australian Open - Hannah Peters/Getty Images

It has been almost nine months since Emma Raducanu removed herself from the tennis circuit.

Much has happened on the tour in that time, including the crowning of a left-field Wimbledon champion (anyone remember Marketa Vondrousova?) and a maiden grand slam title for fellow teenage prodigy Coco Gauff.

Now a remodelled Raducanu is preparing for her first major since that lengthy pit-stop. And judging by Friday’s pre-tournament press conference, she harbours few doubts her engine will soon be revving at full speed.

Emma Raducanu speaking to the press in Melbourne
Raducanu speaking to the press in Melbourne - Andy Cheung/Getty Images

As Raducanu told reporters: “I think my level, to be honest, is just too good not to come through if I put consistent work together.”

One thing Raducanu has never lacked is belief. She spent much of 2021 ambushing more seasoned pros, who melted in the face of her poise and self-assurance.

Now we are about to see Raducanu return to her preferred habitat: a show court at a grand slam. Her Australian Open campaign is due to open on either Monday or Tuesday against the USA’s Shelby Rogers.

Shelby Rogers in action at the US Open
Shelby Rogers is Raducanu's first-round opponent - Ed Jones/AFP

The early signs are positive. The soreness which afflicted Raducanu earlier this week – leading her to pull out of exhibition matches on Wednesday and Thursday – has eased to such a degree that, on Friday, fellow Briton Jodie Burrage reported that “Emma was absolutely creaming the ball” in training.

And there is also a different aura around Raducanu, a sense of a woman who has stepped back and reconsidered her whole approach to tennis. This is a very different Raducanu to the hag-ridden figure who offered 58 words in answer to 16 questions in her most recent meeting with the British press.

Since her US Open miracle, she has had three main problems: the weight of expectation, the preponderance of injuries and the constant turnover of coaches. Even if a couple of these issues may yet recur – most likely No 2 and 3 – she has at least found a brief respite from the churn, with her body behaving and her training progressing smoothly under old ally Nick Cavaday.

Nick Cavaday applauds Aljaz Bedene of Great Britain
Nick Cavaday (centre) is helping Raducanu at the Australian Open - Michael Steele/Getty Images

“I asked him because he coached me [as head coach of the Bromley Tennis Centre] when I was between 10 and 12,” said Raducanu of Cavaday. “We’re just taking it how it goes. It’s been working really well so far. I of course hope to continue with him because I feel very comfortable with him. I know his sister [former British No 3 Naomi Cavaday] really well because, like, everyone is from Bromley. So big up the Bromley!”

Cavaday, 37, could potentially resolve one of Raducanu’s ongoing issues: the fact she is naturally sceptical about coaches, both in terms of their ability and their trustworthiness. As she said in June last year: “People in the industry... see me as a piggy bank.”

Increasingly, it seems as if the only advisors Raducanu does not suspect of trying to exploit her are those she worked with before she became famous – a category that contains Cavaday, some of the fitness staff at the Lawn Tennis Association, and Jane O’Donoghue, the coach-turned-banker who accompanied her in Auckland a fortnight ago.

On her return to the circuit this year, Raducanu is also travelling with another reassuring presence: her mother Renee, who nursed her during her lengthy period of immobilisation last summer.

Renee Raducanu walks with her daughter at Wimbledon
Renee Raducanu (right), Emma's mother, is back by her side - Eddie Mulholland

“My mum helped me a lot,” said Raducanu, who turned 21 in November. “For a period of time I had a scooter to move around. I couldn’t, like, text... anything.

“It just puts things into perspective. The feeling of not being able to move your body, to walk to the kitchen to get a snack, for example, I couldn’t do it and you miss it. You don’t really realise until you go through it yourself, no matter how many different athletes say, ‘Be grateful, appreciate being healthy’.”

Raducanu should be delighted with her first-round draw. Although Rogers is a dangerous hitter, she has not played a competitive match since last year’s Wimbledon because of a torn abdominal muscle.

Should Raducanu come through that one, her area of the draw features some dangerous seeded players, but none of the leading favourites for the title. Sorana Cirstea, who shares her Romanian ancestry, would be her most likely second-round opponent, possibly followed by Chinese No 1 Qinwen Zheng.

Yet Raducanu is too wise to judge herself on the results of the next few days. The primary goal, she says, is to come away from Melbourne in good health.

“Success to me in the long term is to play a full season,” she said. “I know my level is there, I just need to keep working on it to make it more consistent.

“I think that will come with time in the gym, time on court, being able to play the calendar, not thinking about, ‘Will I have to pull out from this one?’ or ‘Does that hurt?’”

Raducanu’s arrival was an instant sensation; a fairytale scenario that may never be repeated. Now, though, it’s time for her to play the long game.

Raducanu’s message for Littler

Luke Littler rues a missed dart
Luke Littler shot to fame at Alexandra Palace - Andy Rain/Shutterstock

Emma Raducanu has advised her fellow teen sensation Luke Littler to take a breath and enjoy his recent coming of age at the PDC World Darts Championship, rather than rushing on to the next thing too quickly.

Speaking to reporters in Australia, Raducanu also warned Littler – whose sudden rise to fame has mirrored her own exploits at the 2021 US Open – to stick with a small and trusted circle of friends and advisors.

Raducanu admitted that she – like everyone else in the country – had become invested in the debate over whether Littler could really be so young.

“My friend sent me a picture of the boy who lost in the final,” said Raducanu, during a break from her pre-tournament preparations in Melbourne. “She was like, ‘I can’t believe this guy’s only 16 years old’.”

Asked if she could share any advice with Littler, who is almost two years younger than she was when she won the US Open, Raducanu replied: “I would just say, ‘Keep your circle close, take time to actually enjoy it, and don’t rush into the next thing straightaway’.”

There are clear parallels between Raducanu and Littler, who both had to come through qualifying at their respective events. As they demolished a series of seasoned opponents, their youth, fearlessness and charisma captivated TV viewers.

The one obvious difference is that she won her final, whereas he finished as runner-up to the implacable Luke Humphries. But Littler’s renown has still exploded on the back of seven magnificent performances at Alexandra Palace.

Speaking on Friday in Melbourne, Raducanu admitted her own historic triumph had left her dealing with over-inflated expectations. “For a long time after the US Open,” she said, she had felt as if she were “playing with a backpack of rocks”.

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