MIKE DICKSON: Don’t expect a barnstorming comeback when injury-plagued former US Open champion Emma Raducanu returns in January… we just need her to stay in one piece

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Via her extremely busy personal Instagram page, Emma Raducanu showed the palm of her hand, replete with blisters and a caption: ‘Welcome Back’.

Her return to the tennis fray is indeed welcome and finally it seems to be on. The 21-year-old from Kent has put her name down on the official list for next month’s Australian Open and it is understood this is not a procedure of token optimism — she is also finalising plans to play events beforehand, right at the start of the new season.

The blisters are a classic sign of someone getting used to the business of properly hitting tennis balls again and are an appropriate reminder that she is someone with much work to do.

Usually the return of Britain’s ninth-ranked women’s player from a period of injury would not exact much interest but, of course, Raducanu is different due to what she achieved so spectacularly in New York barely two years ago.

That guarantees a level of attention way out of proportion to someone whose ranking has slipped to 296 and, however much that might be a false representation, has yet to beat anyone inside the world’s top 10. Having not played since April, the next chapter of her career is about to be written and hopefully will be a happier tale than what has transpired since she won the US Open in 2021.

Emma Raducanu is nearing a long-awaited return after a nightmare few years with injuries

Emma Raducanu is nearing a long-awaited return after a nightmare few years with injuries

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Since winning the US Open in 2021, Raducanu has been faced with several major setbacks

Since winning the US Open in 2021, Raducanu has been faced with several major setbacks

The image of her blisters was also a reminder that suffering these is just one of the many physical issues which have held her back. It was at the Australian Open in 2022 that she first complained of being affected by them on her hand when she went out in the second round.

Others have been well documented and reinforce the idea that success for her in 2024 will be managing to stay in one piece in order to finally put together a complete season.

Providing that happens, there is little chance that she will be hanging around the margins of the professional game, along with others whose ranking is down in the low 200s.

By the end of a full year there will be a clearer idea about the future capabilities of someone who still has time to fulfil an undoubted potential.

Many will be the time when Raducanu will feel her status as a Grand Slam champion is a burden, but when it comes to playing opportunities it is definitely an advantage as it brings with it the option of wildcards being largely on tap.

Expect to see plenty of these being utilised in the coming months and it is one route into the Australian Open main draw if her ‘protected’ ranking of 103 — her ranking before she was injured — does not prove high enough. She is currently six below the entry cut-off point.

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The Australians will be keen to get as many recognisable names into their event as possible, but it could be complicated. There are likely only three invitations to go round once commitments have been honoured to hand them out to play-off winners and via reciprocal arrangements with other nations, plus one that will unquestionably go to 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki.

There is an argument that it might not be the worst thing if Raducanu missed out anyway and were forced to attempt the qualifying rounds in Melbourne and elsewhere, even if that might raise eyebrows among some of her prestige sponsors.

It can be overlooked that she has still played relatively little high-level tennis — only 64 matches in main draws at full WTA Tour level and only 49 against players from the top 100.

Following her Flushing Meadows triumph it was pointed out that she had missed out on many of the building blocks that go towards sustaining a top-flight career.

This applies even more now, as although there has been a dearth of really outstanding players at the top of the women’s game in recent years, the overall depth has improved. She is also a target for opponents, although perhaps less so than before.

Something that has become clear about Raducanu is that she is determined to do things her own way. If she gets the much-desired run of proper fitness, we will find out if the sometimes unconventional approach of her and her father is the right one, or a heady miscalculation.

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It is a source of bemusement to some that she has not assembled a bespoke coaching and fitness team around her and has been largely relying on staff from the Lawn Tennis Association to help her comeback.

Raducanu demonstrated she was nearing a comeback by sharing a post of her blistered hands with the caption 'welcome back', with the 21-year-old set to be back for the new season

Raducanu demonstrated she was nearing a comeback by sharing a post of her blistered hands with the caption ‘welcome back’, with the 21-year-old set to be back for the new season 

The key for her now is finding a way to remain fit and in one piece for the foreseeable future

The key for her now is finding a way to remain fit and in one piece for the foreseeable future

This month saw her miss her scheduled return at an exhibition in Macau. Instead she took herself off to Hong Kong to combine training with a commercial obligation for HSBC.

No, this is definitely not an ordinary British No 9.

With little hardcore match competition behind Raducanu, expectations should be tempered for what she can achieve at the start of the season.

It is unclear whether she will have learned the lessons of the past, but the key will definitely be to stay healthy.

If rebuilding her ranking means Raducanu going back into qualifying events, or revisiting some of the less glamorous tournaments of the professional tennis circuit, that should not be seen as a weakness or lack of ambition.

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