Fitter, happier… 2024 could be the year of Emma Raducanu 2.0

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When the clay court tour began to gain momentum at the Madrid Open last April, things were not going well with Britain’s best tennis player. During her pre-tournament press conference, Emma Raducanu refused to speak to journalists at all. She was brief and abrupt, batting away questions as forcefully as her cruel two-handed backhand.

It turned out that he had a lot to think about. The next day, he withdrew from the tournament due to injury and announced that he would be taking an indefinite leave of absence from the tour while his injuries healed. He then underwent three surgeries, one on each hand plus another on his left ankle. Initially, his team hoped he would return before the end of the year.

Related: ‘Enjoy it’: Emma Raducanu offers advice to Luke Littler on how to deal with success

Raducanu, who turned 21 in November, returned to competitive tennis just last week in Auckland. On Tuesday in Melbourne against Shelby Rogers, he will return to Grand Slam tennis. A lot has happened since his US Open triumph in 2021, and the biggest question surrounding his return is whether he can finally take steps to properly establish himself on tour.

Injuries are one of the hardest parts of professional sports, as they immobilize the fastest athletes in the world and keep them from their craft. Recovery means tedious days of rehabilitation and immense patience is required as very gradual improvements are recorded. After his surgery, Raducanu was barely able to move for two weeks and, after initially returning to the court, suffered a major setback.

“I had two wrists and an ankle very close together so I could have as little free time as possible,” Raducanu said. “Each is two weeks without sweating at all. For a while I had a scooter to get around. I couldn’t text or anything. “

However, the difficulty of tennis is such that long breaks can sometimes be helpful. Throughout the sport’s recent history there are countless examples of players taking time out of the routine and actually benefiting from their absences.

Sloane Stephens won the 2017 US Open again weeks after a year of inactivity; The last glorious stanza of Roger Federer’s career began with his remarkable Australian Open title that same year. More recently, Elina Svitolina returned from her renewed maternity leave last year after initially taking a break from the sport in 2022 due to exhaustion. Many players simply need to get off the intense hamster wheel of professional tennis and its exhaustive travel demands to properly appreciate their sport.

Another player returning to Melbourne this week is two-time Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka, who has been away from competition for 16 months. She gave birth to her daughter, Shai, in July.

“I’ve taken a lot of breaks over the years. I feel like for me, I think this was the one that finally clicked in my head. I think as an athlete I realized that time is really precious. I took it for granted before. If that makes sense. He was young and felt like he could do it again whenever he needed it,” the 26-year-old said.

Ajla Tomljanovic, a Wimbledon and 2022 US Open quarterfinalist who is on track to return after a major knee injury, says her injury has made her hungrier. “I think she made me love him even more,” she said. “I think without realizing it, she probably made me stronger emotionally, because you don’t rehabilitate yourself if you’re not stubborn about coming back.”

Away from the sport, Raducanu focused on the challenge of her rehabilitation but also enjoyed her life beyond the field. “She just puts things into perspective. The feeling of not being able to move my body, like going to the kitchen to eat something, for example, I couldn’t do it. And you miss him. You don’t really realize it until you go through it yourself, no matter how many different athletes say, “Be grateful, value being healthy.” Of course it’s nice to hear, it’s nice to say, but I feel like until you experience it yourself, it’s different.”

While most top players have the benefit of gradually improving and adapting to their increasing success step by step, for Raducanu everything changed overnight. In Madrid last year, his body had fallen apart and his extensive sponsorship deals, training deals and form were constantly scrutinised. On the court he played tense, defensive and error-ridden tennis. At the moment, however, he seems to be in a much better mental situation.

“I feel a lot lighter now than I have for a long time after the US Open,” Raducanu said. “I feel like I’m not playing with a backpack of rocks. “I feel quite light and happy.”

Despite doubts over her fitness, Raducanu has been training and on Friday enjoyed two sessions with the two best British players. “Batting with her today, watching her games last week, I think it’s absolutely incredible what she’s doing. I mean, getting back to that level is already inspiring,” said Katie Boulter, the British number one.

Hours later, Raducanu trained with No. 2 Jodie Burrage, also a regular training partner at the National Tennis Center, who had similar comments. “She was absolutely killing it,” Burrage said. “She was right to try.”

During Raducanu’s short career, her rapid change of trainers has attracted a lot of attention (she is accompanied in Australia by Nick Cavaday, who worked with her from the age of 10 for two years), but if her body can withstand the physical toll of the professional. Tennis is currently a much bigger topic in the context of her career.

Since his emergence on the circuit in 2021, he has enjoyed very few weeks without any physical problems either before or during a tournament. Even as a junior, Raducanu couldn’t handle the physical load without getting injured, and those issues have continued throughout his professional career. In retrospect, her US Open career is even more remarkable, not because she became the first player to win a Grand Slam tournament from the qualifying draw, but because her body managed to endure the most intense three weeks. of their life.

Before his first round match against Rogers, Raducanu was asked how he would define success at this point in his career. Rather than identifying a particular achievement or title, she was clear. She just needs to stay healthy.

“I think for me long-term success is, for the rest of the year, playing a full season, being healthy at all times and being able to train consistent weeks,” he 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 the court, being able to play the schedule, without thinking about: ‘Will I have to withdraw from this, does that hurt…?’”

Then she shrugged. “I think my level, to be honest, is too good not to achieve if I work consistently.”

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