The process of adjusting to the rigours and intensity of a full tennis season always stood as a challenging task for Emma Raducanu in the wake of her US Open victory, but even so her inability to remain healthy throughout this season has been alarming.
Some sort of ailment has followed her during most weeks of this year and it played a defining role once more in her Italian Open debut on Tuesday.
After blisters, a hip injury, other back issues, illness and medical timeouts in most tournaments she has played this year, Raducanu's struggles to find a sustained period of good health continued as she was forced to retire early in the second set of her high-profile first-round match against Bianca Andreescu in Rome with a lower back injury, an imperious Andreescu moving on after Raducanu retired as she trailed 6-2, 2-1.
The retirement is naturally a concern for Raducanu leading up to the French Open, her next tournament, which begins on May 22nd.
Raducanu had arrived in Rome still nursing the back injury she struggled with in her run to the third round of the Madrid Open last week. During her practices in Rome, she reached for her back numerous times and her movement was limited.
“Definitely disappointed with how today went,” she said.
“But I guess I wanted to give it a try. I never really knew how bad it was until I kind of went out there. For me, like I’m still learning when it’s right to push my body and push through it, and when’s not. I guess that’s something I’m kind of learning at these tournaments.”
The long-awaited contest between two US Open champions, played out on Grandstand, the second biggest but least attractive court in Rome, was one-sided from the beginning.
Andreescu arrived on court attacking relentlessly and she maintained that intensity until the end, pressuring her opponent with brutal returning and delicate touches alike, controlling the baseline and attacking her heavy forehand relentlessly with minimal errors.
Under such sustained pressure, Raducanu veered between passively dropping the ball too short or overhitting, her body language was impassive and her movement limited. After Raducanu dropped serve for 1-2 with a double fault, Andreescu battered a backhand return winner to take the second break.
Down 2-5 and flailing, Raducanu took a medical timeout for her back. After a lengthy break, a measure of Andreescu’s confidence came as she calmly returned to serve out 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 eventually put herself out of her misery, telling the umpire “I can’t move” as she retired.
Despite the unsatisfying ending for Raducanu, the match still produced some constructive conclusions for her opponent. As she continues her first steps back from a six-month mental health break and a longer period filled with physical issues, Andreescu showed more glimpses of the quality and form that had marked her as one of the most hyped talents in her sport a few years ago.
Both are playing through their first full clay court seasons, but for Andreescu this is particularly reflective of the injury struggles that have plagued the early years of her career.
But here Andreescu is clearly building up rhythm, confidence and match fitness, and if she can remain fit then it is clear that she can mark herself as a threat for the biggest titles again.
For Raducanu, the question remains what physical state she will be in for her first French Open. She has enjoyed a generally fruitful clay court season, winning matches, adapting to a surface on which she has minimal experience and appearing to enjoy her time again after a particularly difficult start to the year.
But she is still constantly fighting her body. She has continually suggested that her body will eventually grow accustomed to the intensity that the sport demands of it and that it will eventually adjust. It remains to be seen how long that process will take.
“For sure I need to make sure my back is fully right, however long that takes,” she said. “I need to just keep on it. I don’t want to play my next match with a feeling of limitation because I think that I learnt my lesson from this week, when to push, when not to push. Probably today wasn’t right.”
Earlier on Tuesday the British number one, Cameron Norrie, reached the second round with a 6-4, 6-4 win against Luca Nardi, a young Italian wildcard. Norrie, the ninth seed, will face Marin Cilic in the second round.
Novak Djokovic, who received a first-round bye, also comfortably moved through his opening match in Rome, defeating Aslan Karatsev 6-3, 6-2 in their second-round encounter.
Djokovic will face either Laslo Djere or Stan Wawrinka and he must reach the semi-final in Rome in order to keep his No 1 ranking from Daniil Medvedev going into the French Open.