Emma Raducanu shows glimpses of her best but fresh injury worries arise in Elina Svitolina defeat

Emma Raducanu of Great Britain looks on in her match against Elina Svitolina of Ukraine during the 2024 Women's ASB Classic - Emma Raducanu shows glimpses of her best but fresh injury worries arise in Elina Svitolina defeat
Emma Raducanu was beaten in the second round of the ASB Classic in Auckland - Getty Images/Hannah Peters

Emma Raducanu put on an encouraging performance in a three-set loss to Elina Svitolina but raised new injury fears as she wilted in the latter stages.

When Raducanu emerged on Thursday with heavy strapping to her right thigh, fans would be forgiven for thinking here we go again. But those concerns were allayed as she showed no sign of discomfort for more than two hours. In fact, she looked sharper than she had in her first-round win and was going toe-to-toe with former world No 3 Svitolina.

But as things started to unravel in the decider, Raducanu began to clutch her lower back.

The hope will be that it was merely a sign of fatigue, but it raised fresh questions about just how her body will shape up on the comeback trail, following eight months of rehabilitation and three surgeries last year to both wrists and an ankle.

Emma Raducanu arrives for her match against Elina Svitolina with her leg strapped - Emma Raducanu shows glimpses of her best but fresh injury worries arise in Elina Svitolina defeat
Raducanu wore heavy strapping on her right thigh - Hannah Peters/Gerry Images

This 6-7 (5-7), 7-6 (7-3), 6-1 loss had more positives for Raducanu to take than negatives, but perhaps two hours and 48 minutes was too tough a physical test after another long match earlier in the week.

It was a huge shame as, for two highly competitive sets, Raducanu offered a glittering reminder of just how capable she is of hanging with the best in the game.

Second seed Svitolina is by far the more in-form player, as she made a remarkable comeback of her own last season, with runs to the quarter-final and semi-final at Roland Garros and Wimbledon respectively, just months after giving birth to a daughter.

Former US Open champion Raducanu did a phenomenal job of fending off this new-and-improved version of the Ukrainian in the early stages. After storming to a 5-1 lead in the first set, Raducanu’s mental strength was on display as she kept composed when Svitolina upped the level and rattled off five games in a row. The Briton then forced the tie-break and hit two clutch drop shots to take the first set.

Raducanu had said pre-match that she had “nothing to lose” and she played like it. She hit 19 winners to nine unforced errors in the 71-minute first set, showing the packed Auckland crowd how sweetly she can blast a forehand.

The second set was equally competitive, with Raducanu improving her net play and showing surprising match sharpness. She even had a 3-1 lead in the second set tiebreak, but a handful of unfortunate errors saw Svitolina force the decider.

From there Svitolina sped to the finish line, winning five games in a row, and it was early in the third set that Raducanu began to slow, and looked to be experiencing back pain. Svitolina was a deserved winner in the end, hitting a whopping 52 winners to 26 unforced errors, and she progresses to the quarter-finals where she will play Marie Bouzkova on Friday.

These first two matches for Raducanu have been hugely impressive in terms of her tennis level, and the hope will be that her physical issues are not serious as she heads into the Australian Open beginning on January 14.

Jury still out on whether Raducanu’s body is up to task

If Emma Raducanu wanted to know whether she could still play like a top-30 player, she now knows for certain she can. If she wanted to know whether her body is up to the task, the jury is still out.

Raducanu’s first two matches in eight months were full of promise from a tennis standpoint, especially against Elina Svitolina on Thursday. She played more than two hours of dynamic, challenging tennis against an opponent who reached the latter stages of two majors last year. As she had done on Tuesday, she also showed tenacity when momentum shifts went against her, even taking the first set in a tiebreak after losing an early lead.

Her mix of power with canny shot selection was especially impressive, and she was more proactive in committing to big shot-making than in the first round, especially on the forehand side.

Though Raducanu did not win the match, she came very close and all signs suggest she will pose a real threat in the Australian Open draw.

But yet again the physical question that has dogged Raducanu’s career crept up. She arrived with heavy strapping on her thigh and looked to experience back pain late in the match. Both were a stark reminder that, for Raducanu, an unreliable body has thus far held her back in her young career.

A spate of persistent injuries have curtailed her progress since her famous win at the US Open. Raducanu was barely able to play consecutive tournaments for the majority of the last two seasons due to her body’s frailty, which forced her to retire from six matches since her breakthrough at Wimbledon in 2021.

It was initially put down to her being catapulted to the top of tennis so suddenly. Without a couple of years building her body’s resilience at lower level events, the physical demands of playing the best players week in and out were understandably a shock to the system. That, combined perhaps with constant tweaks to her coaching team, made her body less robust.

She took the decision to take drastic but necessary action last May, and had three procedures to remove bony spurs from both wrists as well as an operation on one ankle. The many months spent rehabbing and rebuilding her body were difficult but offered her the rare opportunity to set solid foundations.

The hope had been that such an extended training block would prove transformational for her body, but things were not smooth sailing. She suffered a small injury setback in the autumn which kept her off the training court again and curiously opted against employing an individual fitness coach, despite consultations with external candidates.

Emma Raducanu plays a backhand in her match against Elina Svitolina - Emma Raducanu shows glimpses of her best but fresh injury worries arise in Elina Svitolina defeat
Raducanu has 10 days to recover before the Australian Open - Getty Images /Hannah Peters

The latest concerns about her physical condition do not need to breed panic. It is fairly normal not to be match fit after so long on the sidelines, especially when both her matches went into a third hour. It may only be the ache of fatigue that caused Raducanu to fizzle out late on in the Svitolina loss.

She also has 10 days to recover fully for the Australian Open. Raducanu is not currently entered into any tournaments next week, and is expected to head straight to Melbourne for a week or so of preparation with Jane O’Donoghue, her childhood coach who accompanied her to Auckland.

Her expectations will be measured: a kind draw plus some positive match court experience in Melbourne will feel like a win regardless of how far she progresses. The main thing is whether she can escape injury-free, as this is only the first step in a long climb back up the tennis ladder.

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