The process of adjusting to the rigors and intensity of a full season has always been a difficult task for Emma Raducanu following her US Open victory, but, even so, her inability to stay healthy has been alarming. .
Some sort of illness has plagued her for most weeks this year and it was once again instrumental in her Italian Open debut on Tuesday. After blisters, a hip injury, back problems, illness and medical leaves, Raducanu’s struggles to find an extended period of good health continued as she was forced into early retirement. from the second set of her highly publicized first-round match against Bianca Andreescu with a lower back injury, an imperious Andreescu who continued after Raducanu’s retirement as she led 6-2, 2-1.
Retirement is understandably a concern for Raducanu ahead of Roland-Garros, his next tournament, which begins on May 22. She arrived in Italy to treat a back injury she struggled with during her third-round run at the Madrid Open last week. During her practices here, she reached for her back several times and her movements were restricted.
“Definitely disappointed with how the day went,” she said. “But I wanted to try. I never really knew how bad it was until I got out.
“I’m still learning when it’s good to push my body and push through it and when it’s not. I guess that’s something I learn in these tournaments.
The long-awaited competition between two US Open champions, which took place on Grandstand, the second largest but least attractive of the courts, was one-sided from the start. Andreescu came onto the court attacking relentlessly and she maintained that intensity until the end, putting pressure on her opponent with hard returns and delicate touches, controlling the baseline and attacking her heavy forehand relentlessly with a minimum of errors.
Under such sustained pressure, Raducanu oscillated between passively dropping the ball too short or over-hitting, his body language deadpan and his movements limited. After Raducanu lost serve for 1-2 with a double fault, Andreescu beat a backhand return winner to take the second break.
Trailing 2-5 and restless, Raducanu took a medical time-out for her back. After a long break, a measure of Andreescu’s confidence came as she calmly returned to serve the set to love. She finished the set with 16 winners and two unforced errors and blasted nine more winners to open the second set.
Raducanu decided to get himself out of his misery by telling the referee, “I can’t move.”
Despite the unsatisfactory ending for Raducanu, the match still produced constructive conclusions for his opponent. As Andreescu pursues her first steps after a six-month mental health hiatus and a longer period filled with physical issues, she has shown more glimpses of the quality and form that had marked her as the one of the most publicized talents a few years ago.
Both are playing their first full seasons on clay, but for Andreescu it particularly reflects the injury struggles that plagued the early years of his career. But here Andreescu is developing her pace, confidence and fitness and if she can stay fit, it’s clear she can pose as a threat for the biggest titles again.
For Raducanu, the question remains in what physical condition she will be for her first Roland-Garros. She has had a generally successful season on clay, winning matches, adapting to a surface she has little experience on and seeming to enjoy her time again after a particularly difficult start to the year. But she still constantly struggles with her body and continually suggested that her body would get used to the intensity that would be asked of it and that it would adjust.
“I have to make sure my back is perfectly straight no matter how long it takes,” she said. “I just have to keep going. I don’t want to play my next match with a feeling of limitation.
Earlier on Tuesday, Britain’s men’s number 1 Cameron Norrie reached the second round with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over Luca Nardi, a young wild card from Italy. Norrie, the ninth seed, will face Marin Cilic in the second round.
Novak Djokovic, who received a first-round bye, also rode comfortably through his opener, beating Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-2 in their second-round encounter. Djokovic will face either Laslo Djere or Stan Wawrinka and he needs to reach the semi-final in order to retain his No. 1 ranking from Daniil Medvedev ahead of Roland Garros.