Emma Raducanu has entered January’s Australian Open, although her protected ranking of No 103 may not be high enough to earn her direct access to the main draw.
Unless there are half-a-dozen withdrawals between now and January 8, or the Australian organisers offer her a wildcard, Raducanu will have to go through the demolition derby of qualifying – a fiercely contested 128-player event that starts a week before the tournament proper.
Raducanu’s fans will remember that she did exactly this in New York a little over two years ago, on her way to becoming the first qualifier of either gender to win a grand-slam title. But the situations are extremely different.
Then, she was enjoying her status as a fast-rising but still unproven 18-year-old. Now, she is a big name – one of the biggest on the tour, judging by her social-media following – but also a player who needs to find some equilibrium after two extremely bumpy seasons.
In recent weeks, Raducanu has been gradually increasing her training volumes in practice at the National Tennis Centre in south west London. She is building up her workload after three separate operations in May: two keyhole surgeries to clean up “carpal bosses” (bony spurs, to you and me – see below) on her wrists, as well as another procedure on her ankle.
Because she has not played a match since Stuttgart in April, Raducanu’s current world ranking has slipped to No 296 after eight months of inactivity. This would not be high enough even for the qualifying event in Melbourne. Yet the tennis tours offer players with long-term injuries the right to re-enter certain events at the level they were at when they stepped off the carousel.
An inconvenient wrinkle in the rules means that Raducanu’s final pre-injury position will be taken as No 103 – which is where she was after Madrid on May 7 – rather than as No 85 as she was after Stuttgart on April 24. This is because the injury break is considered to begin after the last event from which you receive money.
Raducanu travelled to Madrid – where she gave an unusually terse interview on April 25 – before withdrawing at the last moment, and then accepting the consolation payment that is offered to injured players (mainly to discourage them from playing events when only half-fit).
She had originally been scheduled to play an exhibition event in Macau last weekend, but pulled out in mid-November. It will be interesting to see who she takes to Australia as part of her team, as she has dispensed with her most recent coach Sebastian Sachs, and is now working mainly with the support of the Lawn Tennis Association.
Raducanu could yet be offered a wildcard by Tennis Australia, but they only have eight to hand out, and several are already accounted for (by other grand-slam nations, in reciprocal deals, and probably by former world No 1 Caroline Wozniacki). In making this tricky decision, administrators will have to weigh up Raducanu’s celebrity against the benefits of helping lower-ranked Australian women.
Mind you, there is an argument that Raducanu might benefit from playing qualifying in any case. It is not yet clear whether she will enter a warm-up event ahead of the Australian Open, but the chance to open against a journeywoman or two in Melbourne might help her build up some much-needed momentum.
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