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Emma Raducanu’s unpredictable career took another strange turn on Thursday. Just when she seemed to be settling into this Australian Open, she developed a crippling blister – located at the base of her right ring finger – which left her completely unable to hit a conventional topspin forehand.
The result was a bizarre match against world No 98 Danka Kovinic, for much of which Raducanu was reduced to slicing the ball on her forehand side. She was as handicapped as a batsman who can only hit the ball to one side of the wicket. In this situation, many players might have been tempted to give up altogether. And yet she showed great resourcefulness to make life extremely difficult for Kovinic. The battle extended for over two-and-a-half hours before Raducanu was eventually eliminated by a 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 scoreline.
While some might scoff at the idea of a blister causing such inconvenience, it should be remembered that Hyeon Chung – the Korean player who defeated Novak Djokovic at this tournament in 2018 – was forced to retire from his ensuing semi-final against Roger Federer with a huge and gruesome blister on his foot.
In Raducanu’s case, the root cause of her ill-timed injury can be traced back to the bout of Covid she suffered in Abu Dhabi last month. Having been denied a normal off-season, she has been spending 12 hours a day on-site at Melbourne Park in an effort to make up for lost time.
But the trouble with that long lay-off is that Raducanu clearly arrived in Australia with baby-soft hands, shorn of the usual callouses which build up over weeks and months of racket-swinging. When she told reporters that she had spent only six or seven hours on court before her walloping by Elena Rybakina during her build-up event in Sydney, we thought she might be exaggerating. But after this unexpected result, the suggestion seems much more plausible.
There was much to admire as well as much to wonder about. How many players would have had the wit and gumption to develop an effective gameplan on the hoof, especially when working with such unpromising material? “To get that second set with basically one shot?” she said later. “I can't believe it, really.”
It was amazing to see Raducanu figure out her options. She was like a woman cracking Sudoko puzzles on the most extreme difficulty setting. In between points, she would sometimes look up at her coaches and grin broadly at the absurdity of it all.
And yet, when Raducanu started hitting drive forehands again at the start of the third set, it was hard to work out what had happened. Was her hand suddenly feeling better, after 90 minutes of tennis? Not even rice pudding grows skin that fast.
When questioned on this point in the interview room afterwards, Raducanu replied “Obviously the slice forehand worked, but it's not like my most comfortable shot or my first choice. I didn't know how far it could take me. Also when Danka would hit the ball heavy and spinny to my forehand side, it's very difficult to slice that shot.”
Raducanu had made a solid start to the match, reeling off the first three games with a steady gameplan that didn’t feature too many unnecessary risks. But she was then dragged back to 3-2, at which point she called the physio to the court to have a plaster applied to the large hole on her right hand.
For a while, the remedy allowed her to keep playing topspin forehands, but they weren’t anything like as strong or accurate as usual, and Kovinic soon ran away with the set. Remarkably, it was when Raducanu gave up her attempts and simply started slicing that she became more competitive. There was a period – until Kovinic got wise to it – when she was particularly effective with an angled drop shot.
Her backhand, meanwhile, continued as normal. A proper two-handed backhand is powered almost entirely by the left hand, so every time the ball came on that wing, you could almost see a little light-bulb above Raducanu’s head – an explosion of relief that she could swing through rather than having to improvise.
For Kovinic, the situation was weird and discombobulating. On the upside, she was playing a debilitated opponent. At the same time, though, nobody trains against an opponent who can’t hit topspin forehands. Perhaps she should have just kept banging away with weight and power to that side, but Raducanu was surprisingly consistent with her slicey squash shot. Tactically, this was what we might call a head-spinner.
For the nearest comparison, we might turn to the French Open match where Andy Murray ricked his back against Jarkko Nieminen, and was reduced to serving at 60mph like a pensioner or clubbie. Murray still won, only to be famously dubbed a “drama queen” by Virginia Wade on commentary.
Raducanu looked to be seizing the initiative early in the third set, but Kovinic showed enormous resilience to hang on, finally closing out her win with a backhand that caught the corner of both lines. Strangely, it may have helped her that Raducanu had returned to something like a normal gameplan, and even slammed a full-power forehand return up the line for a winner on the penultimate point.
After her stunning runs at Wimbledon and the US Open, this was Raducanu’s first grand-slam outing against an opponent she was widely expected to beat. In the end, it also turned into her first defeat by a conventional scoreline. (When she went out of Wimbledon, she retired from the match with breathing difficulties.)
Yes, it was a conventional scoreline. But one could hardly call it a conventional match.
How match unfolded:
Raducanu out as Kovinic marches on
History for Kovinic
History maker 🇲🇪@DankaKovinic upsets Emma Raducanu 6-4 4-6 6-3 to become the first player representing Montenegro to reach the third round of a Grand Slam.
🎥: @wwos • @espn • @Eurosport • @wowowtennis #AusOpen • #AO2022 pic.twitter.com/wauKCPG1KU
— #AusOpen (@AustralianOpen) January 20, 2022
Danka Kovinic: Emma is such a talent
Thank you, it was a nice experience to play here against Emma and to make my first appearance in the third round after many years.
She had an amazing result winning a grand slam at such a young age, she is such a talent, it was just a really nice experience. I'm glad I showed I can play at a high level.
I was a little bit low in my energy through the third set so I really wanted to be focused on myself and not show many emotions, when I'm winning or losing, I wanted to just save my energy.
Raducanu out of the Australian Open
Raducanu embraces her opponent at the net and then swiftly exits the arena. It was a gutsy display from the British No 1, who had been battling a painful hand blister since the opening set but still somehow managed to force a decider. We'll hear from Kovinic shortly...
Kovinic beats Raducanu 6-4 4-6 6-3
Now then, any nerves from the Montenegrin world No 98? She pulls at a return which flies long but makes no mistake with a cross-court winner. A handy time for an ace too, for 30-15.
And here's two match points after Raducanu's backhand finds the net.
Raducanu holds nothing back, smashing a service return back down the line. They engage in another powerful rally but Kovinic finds the corner to secure the win!
Raducanu 4-6 6-4 3-5 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Beautiful point from Raducanu from start to finish, big serve, big groundstrokes, gutsy volley at the net. Kovinic goes long for 30-0. Raducanu opts for the drop shot but Kovinic reaches it and Raducanu is caught on her heels.
Another strong serve which Kovinic returns long for 40-15. And then Raducanu gets lucky on a poor drop shot as Kovinic messes up her return.
Kovinic to serve for the match.
Raducanu* 4-6 6-4 2-5 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Now it's Kovinic's turn to go 30-up on on her serve. Raducanu suddenly seems a bit flat, with another unforced error off the backhand. Kovinic completes a rare hold to love and the British No 1 will serve to stay in the Australian Open.
Raducanu 4-6 6-4 2-4 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Raducanu on a roll? She's quickly 30-0 up, helped once again by a classy cross-court backhand. Kovinic returns with a zipping forehand winner when Raducanu returns short. A twirl of frustration from Raducunu on the baseline when her attempted sliced backhand sinks into the net. 30-30. We're back to deuce as the match approaches the 2hr30 mark.
Raducanu fends off a break point with the help of a fierce serve but a huge slice of net cord luck hands Kovinic a second break opportunity. Another pause to the game as the ball boy has to remove a bug from the court.
The delay doesn't affect her serve but her approach shot is lacking in power and Kovinic executes the lob to break.
Raducanu* 4-6 6-4 2-3 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
A slight delay to the start of the game thanks to some seagull interlopers above the court, causing much amusement for the fans. The players not so much.
After her backhand problems last game, Raducanu seems to have got it back on track, doing some serious damage to help bring up three break back points. She seals it with a volley to break back.
Raducanu 4-6 6-4 1-3 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
It's a fourth double fault of the match for Raducanu, followed by an unforced backhand error into the net. Raducanu will have go deep again on her service game. Oh no! Another backhand malfunction off the Raducanu racket gifts Kovinic three break points.
The Montenegrin has a new conviction to her game suddenly although that return flies into the net. She doesn't have to wait long for the break though as another backhand error from Raducanu concedes the game. That's a worry for the Briton as the backhand is usually her most trusted weapon.
Raducanu* 4-6 6-4 1-2 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Raducanu seems to be relying more on her forehand, despite the hand blisters, although it's a backhand winner that secures her the point. A double fault and error off the backhand from Kovinic hands Raducanu two break points. The first is saved with a forehand winner and then Raducanu is not clincial enough with her drop shot.
She crafts out another break point but it goes begging and then a weak drive volley allows Kovinic to blast into the corner for a winner. We head back to deuce momentarily but some big hitting from the Montenegrin digs her out of trouble. Massive hold.
Raducanu 4-6 6-4 1-1 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
I'm struggling to recall a time either player had a hold to love, which just shows how close this match is. We're back to 30-30.
Raducanu is stranded mid court but Kovinic is long with her return, much to the Briton's relief. Raducanu peppers her opponent with fierce forehands and gets her rewards with the hold.
Raducanu* 4-6 6-4 0-1 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
We had a bit of an extra pause between sets as Kovinic headed off court. Raducanu was the first back to the baseline, showing she was ready by jumping gamely up and down on her toes.
Kovinic gets us underway, immediately moving into a 30-0 lead. It's drop-shot central on this court currently, this time Kovinic doing the business.
But there's a few too many errors from the Montenegrin's racket and Raducanu brings up break point. She lets rip with the forehand but just wide. And that opens the door for Kovinic who goes on to emphatically smash her forehand into the court to hold.
Driving through the pain
"Does it hurt, when you hit your forehand?"
— The Tennis Podcast (@TennisPodcast) January 20, 2022
Deciding set incoming
For the second Raducanu match in a row, we're heading to a deciding set. We're not short on entertainment when it comes to watching Emma! What an effort it has been for the Briton, who has been struggling with painful blisters on her right hand since the opening set.
Raducanu 4-6 6-4 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
The first point of the game goes to Kovinic after a forehand winner clips the line. And then another, a mid-court volleyed winner straight back into that right corner again. The old drop-shot-lob combo works for Raducanu on the next, the Briton making it look easy. She drives her return deep on the next, ready to approach the net but the point is already hers for 30-30.
Kovinic is swinging hard, and a forehand winner does the trick for break point. Nothing doing as Raducanu gets her opponent on the run again with yet another drop-shot, leaving her to pop the ball easily into the empty court. But here's another break point and here's another huge defensive effort from the Briton, who brings up set point.
She just needs one opportunity, celebrating with a fist pump when Kovinic goes just long with her return. Raducanu wins the set.
Raducanu* 4-6 5-4 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Kovinic, perhaps sensing the finish line, fires a backhand winner down the line. She ain't going to have this easy though and Raducanu levels at 15-15. Kovinic is back at the net again and gets some serious air to smash her return back, it bounces once and flies high over Raducanu's head - no chance for the Briton there.
Kovinic brings up three game points but nets on the first. Raducanu fires her return straight back at Kovinic's feet and the player can only fire wide, while tumbling backwards. A forehand winner (despite that blistered hand) brings up break point Raducanu.
Kovinic digs it out, and we're approaching seven minutes for this game. Another break point goes begging, but then Raducanu brings out the full bag of tricks, a drop-shot, followed by an attempted winner but then she does get the winner off the forehand. Raducanu breaks and will serve for the set.
Raducanu 4-6 4-4 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
The thing about Raducanu is that she doesn't seem to let things bother her for long. A double fault? No dramas, she follows it up with a forehand winner into the empty court.
Another point on the board but then a forehand smash goes just wide and immediately afterwards the Briton grimaces in pain and looks at her hand. It's obviously still troubling her but she's trying to block it out as much as she can.
Raducanu's return just creeps over the net, she tries to then lob her opponent but Kovinic replies with a winner. Break point. And it's wide from Raducanu! Kovinic breaks and we're all square in the second set.
Raducanu* 4-6 4-3 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
These players are throwing everything at this match. Kovinic is renowned for her drop shots but it's Raducanu currently using them best, bringing up 15-0. And there's a clean winner off the trusty backhand, powering back behind her opponent.
Kovinic digs deep to get back to 30-30 but she then turns away in disgust when her forehand misfires and hands Raducanu a break point. She fends it off and then brings up game point with a sliced drop shot of her own. A backhand winner wraps up another important hold. But crucially for British tennis fans, Raducanu still holds the break.
Raducanu 4-6 4-2 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Right then, Raducanu is going to have to do this game the hard way after falling 0-30 down.
A backhand winner gets her on the board but the next is even better, Raducanu drawing her opponent short before then booming a backhand winner back behind her. She's showing tactical nous beyond her years, again mixing up the shots to make things difficult for her opponent for 40-30.
Kovinic is not rolling over though and smashes a winner for deuce. The first game point goes begging for Raducanu but she gets another bite at the cherry when Kovinic drags her return wide. And there's the game when Kovinic puts too much on her backhand. Raducanu keeps the advantage in this set.
Raducanu* 4-6 3-2 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Kovinic has an obvious advantage on her serve given she is not (outwardly at least) battling any blisters on her hand. She moves to 30-0 before Raducanu gets a slight look in but the Montenegrin replies with an ace and wraps up a relatively easy hold.
Raducanu 4-6 3-1 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
A shake of the head from Raducanu when she concedes the first point but she's smiling again soon after following some superb defensive work. Kovinic is pretty much camped at the net trying to hold off the Raducanu onslaught but eventually the Briton fires a winner past her.
It just looks like Raducanu has decided to simply enjoy herself her. She opts to cut short the rally with a back-handed drop shot which Kovinic can only put into the net. Another big smile. She then has Kovinic on the run again across the baseline, her forehand winner putting her 40-15 ahead.
Kovinic gets a point back but then she tries to unload a winner down the line and misses. Raducanu edges further ahead in this second set.
Raducanu* 4-6 2-1 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Kovinic seems a little rattled off of a sudden. At 15-0 up, she appears to be set for a winner approaching the net, with Raducanu deep in the corner. Except she just hits the ball straight at Raducanu and when the return comes back at her with interest, she can only volley into the net. Raducanu smiles again.
Kovinic edges back ahead but then Raducanu is firing sharply back at her again when she approaches the net. She tries to get a racket to it, but that was more in vain.
An ace digs her out of trouble and she wraps up an important hold when Raducanu delivers an unforced error. That was a gritty hold from the player from Montenegro.
Raducanu 4-6 2-0 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
This is turning into a great match, the two trading ground strokes, including a cross-court forehand winner from Kovinic for 15-15.
Raducanu is battling for every point, piling the pressure right back on her opponent and it's Kovinic who cannot cope with the heat. Raducanu breaks out into a big smile with that hold, looking directly at her box.
Raducanu* 4-6 1-0 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Right then, can Raducanu try and clear her mind and go again? She slips to 0-30 but then there's the grit that helped win her the US Open title last year as she gets level before bringing up break point. She can't convert the first but she gets a chance soon after. A sliced effort puts the pressure on Kovinic and she blinks, going wide on her return.
Raducanu breaks and that roar from the Briton tells you everything you need to know.
The issue that is hampering Raducanu
Raducanu 4-6 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Raducanu serving to stay in the set. Ah not good as she slips 0-30 down. Another long rally has Raducanu on the run, she tries valiantly to pick up the ball deep on the baseline but she can't pick it up. Three set points Kovinic.
And she only needs the one thanks to Raducanu's backhand error. It must be so frustrating for Raducanu who no doubt has been hampered by that blister on her hand.
Raducanu* 4-5 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
A backhand winner for Raducanu will give her confidence and then an error from Kovinic opens the door. The backhand is where Raducanu is going to succeed here with her hand and another winner brings up three break points.
She loses the first on the forehand but an error for Kovinic hands Raducanu the break.
Raducanu 3-5 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Another double fault to open from Raducanu. The Briton is in a spot of bother here, she can only have the trainer out two more times, it seems, and that plaster looks like it's already starting to come off her right hand.
She's battling as you would expect but the serve has lost all power and Kovinic swiftly brings up two break points.
A fault on the first before a weak second serve invites Kovinic into the rally. She holds on for a few returns before dragging one wide. Kovinic breaks and will serve for the set.
Raducanu* 3-4 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Kovinic opens wth an ace. It's the forehand and serve which Raducunu is most hampered with due to her grip with her right hand. Kovinic with another drop shot - Raducanu gets there but a top spin lob from Kovinic then does the business. 30-0.
Oooo that's tasty. A forehand cross-court winner from Raducanu, the best we've seen since her hand problem but then Kovinic replies with her own skilful shot, a sliced backhanded drop shot.
She follows it up by wrapping up the game, her fourth in a row as she hits the front in this match. Raducanu needs to stop this momentum from Kovinic if she can put those hand troubles to be back of her mind.
Raducanu 3-3 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Raducanu will be testing that plaster straight away as she's now serving with the same hand. Oh dear, both attempts go straight into the net for a double fault.
Better on the next as she manages to engage in a long rally but she eventually nets for 0-30. Kovinic doing exactly what she needs to do by making Raducanu play plenty of shots with that right hand. A superb backhand winner down the line brings up three break points.
The Briton's forehand is into the net and Kovinic breaks to love.
Raducanu* 3-2 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
So it's Raducanu who has called for assistance, for what looks like a problem with her fingers, perhaps blisters? This could explain that last game where Raducanu did not look comfortable with her shots.
We're having a medical time out while the Briton gets what looks like a sophisticated plaster attached to just below her fourth and fifth fingers on her right hand. There's plenty of the stuff going on there.
Raducanu* 3-2 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
The Raducanu radar has stuttered slightly as she misses her mark again with the return. Such fine margins in tennis. As Kovinic then finds out when her own backhanded shot goes the wrong side of the line. 15-15.
Raducanu mutters to herself as she delivers a sixth unforced error into the net. But Kovinic replies with one of her own for 30-30. Another unforced error from Raducanu, this game is full of them and neither player seems to trust in their shots suddenly.
It's Raducanu who blinks first again after a long rally of shots down the middle, her shot landing long.
The physio has been called to the court, unclear for which player but we'll soon find out.
Raducanu 3-1 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Hang on, what do we have here? Suddenly a bit of pressure on the Raducanu serve as Kovinic edges into a 30-0 lead. She's trying to move Raducanu around a bit more but the 17th seed knows the game and can easily cover the ground, picking up on a drop-shot with a deep return which Kovinic then sends into the net.
Kovinic gives Raducanu a bit of her own treatment with a backhand winner up the line for three break back points.
Raducanu drags her return wide of the baseline and Kovinic breaks.
Raducanu* 3-0 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
Raducanu looks very much on it from the start today, and throws in a cute back-handed drop shot for good measure to move 30-0 up on her opponent's serve. She's dragged out of court on the next and a good shot from Kovinic could punish the scampering Briton but the world No 98 goes long! Three break points.
The first is saved but then we're treated to a long baseline stand-off which ends when Kovinic blinks first, dumping into the net. Raducanu breaks.
The Briton is up to her usual tricks in racing into a comfortable first set lead and leaving her opponent's mind scrambled.
Raducanu 2-0 Kovinic* (*denotes next server)
Raducanu certainly has a habit of starting like a stream train in grand slam matches. Can she consolidate the break now?
The serve looks fairly good okay, moving to 30-15 when her opponent dumps her return into the net. A slight wobble on the next point leaves the Briton relying on her second serve but she holds her nerve. And two ugly shots from Kovinic, the ball flying out of court each time, hands Raducanu the game.
Raducanu* 1-0 Kovinic (*denotes next server)
A solid start from Kovinic as she races into a 30-0 lead. Raducanu draws out a few errors for 30-30 but a big serve moves Kovinic 40-30 up. It's an energy sapping rally on the next, the two trading ground strokes before Kovinic is forced to take a return high and sends it long of the baseline for deuce.
Clinical from Raducanu as she swats a backhanded return straight down the line for a break point.
If there was a little fist pump there, it's a whole lot bigger on the next with a shout of c'mon, when Kovinic is long on her return. Raducanu with the early break.
The players have finished their warm-up and we're underway
'She has a lot to learn'
Almost time for Raducanu to take to the court for her second-round match.
In the meantime, here's a look back at some comments made by her defeated first-round opponent Sloane Stephens, who sounded aggrieved at the way Raducanu had challenged her verbally at the start of their first-round match.
"Because she is so young it's definitely a long road, so there's going to be a lot of ups and downs. I think she, yeah, has just a lot to learn."
Sour grapes perhaps? You can read more on that here:
Welcome to the latest chapter in Emma Raducanu's emerging grand slam career.
The 19-year-old said she took took inspiration from Andy Murray's fighting spirit to break new ground at the Australian Open and record her first main draw victory in Melbourne.
Her 6-0 2-6 6-1 win over fellow US Open champion Sloane Stephens made it 11 wins from 12 main draw matches at grand slam level but amazingly it was the first time Raducanu had played a deciding set at a grand slam having won three matches at Wimbledon and seven in New York - as well as three in qualifying - all in straight sets.
Raducanu said: "When I was in the third set I actually thought, 'Andy was up a set then he got pushed to five but he fought back so hard and took the decider', so, when I went to three, I was also thinking, 'Actually, I can fight back and win, fight like he did'. I was definitely inspired by him."
Raducanu's reward for victory is a second-round clash with Montenegro's Danka Kovinic this morning, This will be the first time at a grand-slam event that Raducanu walks out as a heavy favourite.
Kovinic has at least made it through the first round this year, after failing to win a single game against Ashleigh Barty at the equivalent stage of the 2021 Australian Open. But she did drop a set against Jang Su-jeong, the world No210, and has a limited range of attacking options.
On paper, this looks a straightforward assignment, but tennis psychology is complex, and the hike in expectation could be disruptive. A good time, then, to have a skilled communicator like new coach Torben Beltz on hand.
“He brings some great positive energy,” said Raducanu of the 45-year-old German. “So to have that in your corner is definitely an uplifting thing.”