Learning how to be a tennis player is a very different business to just playing tennis. US Open champion Emma Raducanu has already aced the latter. But the former requires a little more revision.
It is no easy lesson. Knowing how to manage the non-stop travel lifestyle, slotting in the right training plan and figuring out the perfect playing schedule formula are logistical considerations that can take years to balance. But getting that balance right is key to a healthy career – and essential to solving the physical limitations that have held Raducanu back so far this season.
being forced to retire from her first-round match against Bianca Andreescu at the Italian Open, due to a stiff lower back, was a wake up call for the 19-year-old on just how difficult knowing her body at this level can be.
She admitted she may have pushed it too far by playing through the back issue, which was a hangover from the Madrid Open. That she could not recover in the seven-day layoff she had between the tournaments is a concern. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but Raducanu admitted she had been doubting her physical condition as early as Monday. With it being a first-round match, and after banking time on the clay in Prague, Stuttgart and Madrid, she could have afforded to drop Rome from her schedule to be on the safe side – especially as it follows a number of annoying ailments.
As it stands though, the latest problem has now put a spanner in the works for her Roland Garros preparations. Though Telegraph Sport understands she does not believe the injury is serious enough to require a scan, she is going to take the advice of physiotherapists when she lands back in London this week.
The casual observer may surprise that Raducanu is not made of strong enough mettle. But it is exactly her never-say-die attitude that may be partly to blame for her troubles. She is an eager rookie, keen to measure herself against the best in the world. Knowing when not to take to the court though is as important as perfecting a drop shot or nailing your serve in tennis.
Raducanu knows better than anyone that she is playing catch up. Most players build themselves up to the transition from junior to pro, dipping their toe into the tour in their early teens more regularly, but her more abrupt arrival delivered a shock to the system akin to graduating from 5k Park Runs to a full-blown marathon overnight. She was also struck down by coronavirus in December, meaning her hard work in the weight room during the off-season was undone. Those factors have a big role to play in her injury struggles, likely caused by a general fitness deficit.
“I definitely feel like the matches are taking a lot more out of me than they probably should,” she said on Tuesday. “I had a match in Stuttgart, my first round, and the next day I felt like I was in bits. It became like a running joke.” Though she can see the lighter side, and does not appear excessively perturbed by the road bumps she is experiencing, the pattern is one she wants to break.
Seasoned veterans on tour have observed that taking a hiatus from competition, maybe only of a few weeks, to strengthen in the gym could be just the ticket for Raducanu. Doing that in the middle of the season is not ideal, especially as it could mean sacrificing Paris, but it might be the most sensible option considering the calendar runs non-stop from January to November. Becoming “more robust”, as Anne Keothavong put it, is something that cannot happen in the couple of days between matches or tournaments, when recovery is the name of the game.
Raducanu is seated firmly in the driving seat of her own career, as she opted not to replace Torben Beltz with a full-time coach, but she should seek the advice of those with experience around her on this. While her coaching team has changed, her physios, Will Herbert and Tom Cornish (who was out in Rome with her this week) should guide her and instill a level of caution.
No one expects her to have all the answers yet. But Raducanu is sharp, and Tuesday should serve as a lightbulb moment about the importance of playing the long game even at this early stage in her career.