Emma Raducanu suffered a difficult setback in her attempts to rebuild her form and rhythm during her comeback from injury, crashing out in the first round of the Qatar Open with a 6-0, 7-6 (6) loss to Anhelina Kalinina, the world No 30.
Raducanu, who is ranked No 262, had arrived in Doha for the second stop of the new, extended Middle Eastern swing after a largely positive showing last week in Abu Dhabi. She reached the second round with one of her best wins since the start of 2023, a 6-4, 6-1 victory over Marie Bouzkova, the No 36. However, she was then predictably outclassed by Ons Jabeur, ranked No 6, in the second round.
In slow, windy conditions in Doha, against an extremely solid opponent, Raducanu was completely out of sorts from the very beginning. The 21-year-old struggled badly to find her range and her unforced error count rapidly rose as Kalinina chased down ample balls, elongated rallies and outworked her opponent from the baseline. The Ukrainian rolled through the first set with ease, striking just two unforced errors compared to 15 from Raducanu.
Raducanu finally began to find her range and intensity in the second set, forcing herself inside the baseline and looking to take the ball early off both wings and control the exchanges. After Kalinina broke serve for 6-5 and then reached double match point, Raducanu saved both match points before reaching a set point at 6-5 in the tie-break. In the end, Kalinina wore her challenger down in consecutive brilliant, lengthy exchanges, battling through the final three points to seize the victory.
While Raducanu’s performance in the first set was atrocious, she put up a decent fight in the end. In recent weeks, the Briton has been determined to play extremely aggressive tennis, particularly taking control with her forehand. At times in the second set she struck the ball beautifully and her strokes were far more potent than Kalinina’s. But this level requires far greater point-by-point consistency and fewer errors than the 48 she struck on Monday, particularly from her volatile forehand wing.
Finding rhythm after long layoffs is extremely difficult and it usually takes time but Raducanu’s scheduling upon her return to competition has been curious. Instead of starting afresh and attempting to rebuild her form at a lower level, such as by playing the WTA 250 event in Cluj last week, she has opted to take wildcards into big events. Even if she had pulled out a victory over Kalinina, the in-form No 8 seed Jelena Ostapenko would have been heavily favoured to beat her in the second round.
The WTA’s changes to its calendar have certainly made it even more difficult to play lower events. While ATP players can choose between three tournaments each week in February, with seven ATP 250s being held this month, the WTA’s calendar now prioritises the bigger events. This week, the Qatar Open, a WTA 1000, is the only event on the WTA and there are only two WTA 250 events this month. Raducanu has opted against requesting another wildcard into the WTA 1000 event in Dubai next week, and she will return home to train ahead of the back to back WTA 1000 events at Indian Wells and Miami.
Later on Monday evening in Doha, Naomi Osaka took a significant step in her comeback as she defeated Caroline Garcia, the 15th seed, 7-5, 6-4 to reach the second round.
Prior to that victory, Osaka had won just once in her first four matches since she returned to professional tennis after giving birth to her daughter, Shai. Last week, Osaka looked particularly shaky as she lost the final nine games of her 7-5, 6-0 defeat to Danielle Collins in Abu Dhabi. She had already faced Garcia in the first round of the Australian Open, where despite a competitive match, Osaka had failed to generate a single break point against the Frenchwoman.
In the early exchanges, Garcia looked similarly dialled in, breaking Osaka to generate a 5-3 lead, but Osaka recovered to take the final four games of the first set and she gradually gained confidence with her ballstriking throughout the match, snatching the decisive break in the final game. Osaka will next face Petra Martic of Croatia as she looks to win consecutive matches for the first time in her return.