Emma Raducanu suffered a difficult setback in her attempts to rebuild her form and rhythm during her comeback from injury as she paid dearly for an abysmal start, losing 6-0, 7-6 (6) to Anhelina Kalinina, the world No 30, in the first round of the Qatar Open.
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 2 unforced errors compared to 15 from Raducanu.
The second set opened in similar fashion, with Raducanu double-faulting on break point to trail 0-6, 0-1. But she slowly finally began to find her feet, forcing herself inside the baseline and looking to take the ball early off both wings and control the exchanges. After immediately breaking back, Raducanu found rhythm on her serve and even held firm in a brutal service game at 3-3, scuppering all five break points with four groundstroke winners and an ace.
It seemed like Raducanu’s recovery would end abruptly as she played a poor, error-strewn service game at 5-5, allowing Kalinina to break serve for 6-5 and then reach double match point. Instead, after an error from Kalinina on the first match point, the Briton eviscerated a forehand down-the-line winner to save the second and she broke serve at the close to force a tie-break. Raducanu then generated a set point at 6-5 in the tie-break, but Kalinina wore her challenger down in consecutive brilliant, lengthy exchanges, battling through the final three points to seize the victory.
What began as a disastrous performance at least ended with a decent fight from Raducanu. At times in the second set she struck the ball beautifully and she was by far the cleaner, more potent ballstriker. But this level requires far greater point-by-point consistency and fewer errors, 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, the Briton has opted to take wildcards into big events where the standards are extremely high. 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.
Last year, Elina Svitolina finished the 2023 season as the WTA comeback player of the year. Despite establishing herself as a top player for a far longer period than the 2021 US Open champion, Svitolina was willing to drop down to the ITF Circuit as she tried to find her feet after maternity leave. A key result came in the Strasbourg WTA 250 event, which she won without facing a single top-40 opponent. Winning matches against lesser opponents provided her with sufficient confidence to take her game to the best players. For Raducanu, even when she has played well, the calibre of opposition has made it difficult to establish any lasting rhythm.
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 may hope for another wildcard into the WTA 1000 event in Dubai next week, where a similar challenge would await her against the best players in the world.