Emma Raducanu and what will make Australian Open comeback a success


And so onto the stage arrived the latest teenage sporting sensation. The sudden, improbable and staggering emergence of Luke Littler at the World Darts Championship last week gave the sports world that sweet, sweet injection of its favourite sugar rush: of a previously unknown teenager bursting onto the scene in a brilliantly effortless, refreshingly cool blaze of glory. Littler made winning look easy while also just being a normal teenager. He celebrated by buying takeaways and staying up to play on his Xbox. He almost won the World Championship on his Ally Pally debut. Did that really just happen? Was it all a dream?

But what Littler’s explosion onto the scene was a reminder of is the unstoppable and irreversible power of hype in sport. The thing about Luke Littler now is he’s a once-in-a-generation talent. He’s going to be the greatest player the world has ever seen. He will win the World Darts Championships 47 times. No one knows what will happen but it doesn’t mean people won’t try to predict it. And while it can be hard to not get carried away while high on the excitement, it takes much longer for those expectations to come down once they hit the ceiling.

The timing of Littler’s run to the World Championship final last week was oddly fitting, as, on the other side of the world, Emma Raducanu returned to the tennis court and played her first matches in eight months ahead of her upcoming comeback at the Australian Open. Littler’s run to the World Championship final invariably sparked comparisons to Raducanu’s own fairytale story of her US Open triumph in 2021 – most of them, admittedly, are pretty lazy.

Even so, Littler and Raducanu probably don’t share much in common apart from the one thing in which they absolutely can relate, perhaps more than anyone else in the country as a teenager in the social media age: the experience of having your world flipped upside down in the space of a week, of suddenly being the star in demand – the calls, offers, expectations, and requests – and what comes next.

It’s a question that Raducanu is still trying to figure out, two years on from winning the US Open as an 18-year-old qualifier. Last June, shortly after undergoing three surgeries on both hands and her left ankle, Raducanu made the startling admission that she sometimes wishes her victory in New York hadn’t happened. Her reasoning was that her subsequent struggles with playing consistently and an injury-hit debut year as a professional would have been easier to deal with without the heightened expectations and scrutiny that her historic grand slam triumph created.

More encouragingly, Raducanu has since spoken positively about how her eight months away from the court has refreshed her approach. After feeling dragged down by her US Open success, time off the court has given Raducanu distance to reassess where she is and what she wants her career to be. She has spoken of coming back to tennis “reborn”, of feeling “lighter” and happier than she did for a long time after the US Open. “I feel like I’m not playing with a backpack of rocks,” she said on Friday. There is also determination there, and ambition.

The question, of course, is how long that feeling can last. Raducanu has at least set her goals for the season on achieving consistency and remaining injury-free throughout the year. Raducanu and those around her are confident that her level is there and will shine through if she can remain fit. And after a series of short-term appointments, Raducanu has returned to a familiar face in childhood coach Nick Cavaday, who she has known since she was 10 years old. After reflecting on the past two years, there was a suggestion from Raducanu that since 2021, there have been voices in her ear and within her circle who have not been an appropriate fit.

Emma Raducanu will face unseeded American Shelby Rogers in the opening round of the Australian Open

(AP)

If Raducanu is trying to rediscover something both off and on the court, the Australian Open draw provided an appropriate opportunity. When Raducanu takes on Shelby Rogers in her first-round match in Melbourne, there will be a further reminder of where the Briton is trying to get back to, given the manner in which Raducanu thrashed Rogers on Arthur Ashe on her way to winning the title at Flushing Meadows. From an early break down Raducanu ruthlessly wiped the floor with the American at her home tournament, in a fearless performance that hinted at what was to come that fortnight.

But the reality is Raducanu was never going to have that time or those conditions again once her world turned upside down – and the process of determining success and finding contentment within her sport is now shaped by a variety of far more complicated factors. Perhaps another returning player at the Australian Open this month, in the four-time major champion Naomi Osaka, is instructive of that: it has taken a 15-month break, a baby, and space away from the sport for the now 26-year-old to recognise what it is that she appreciates in tennis.

Since her comeback, the former world No 1 has allowed some of the walls she built around herself to come down. Osaka has returned to a sport and place that was, for her, the cause of depression and anxiety, a more confident, positive person – happier with who she is and grateful to have the opportunity. There is a sense now, with Osaka, that she can start again and take on her sport on her terms. And that, really, is all anyone is trying to do.  For Raducanu to appreciate that, too, seems a good place for her comeback to start.



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