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
Through her extremely busy personal Instagram page, Emma Raducanu showed off the palm of her hand covered in blisters and the caption: 'Welcome Back'.
Her return to the tennis fray is indeed welcome and the time finally seems to have come. The 21-year-old from Kent has put her name on the official list for next month's Australian Open and it is clear this is not a procedure of token optimism. the new season.
The blisters are a classic sign that someone is getting used to hitting tennis balls correctly again and are a fitting reminder that she is someone who has a lot of work to do.
Normally, the ninth-ranked British women's player's return from a spell of injury wouldn't attract much interest, but Raducanu is obviously different because of what she performed so spectacularly in New York just two years ago.
That guarantees a level of attention far out of proportion for someone whose ranking has fallen to 296 and, as much of a misrepresentation as that may be, has yet to beat anyone in the world's top 10. Having not played since April, the next chapter of her career is about to be written and will hopefully be a happier story than what has happened since she won the 2021 US Open.
Emma Raducanu is nearing a long-awaited return after a few years of injury nightmares
Since winning the 2021 US Open, Raducanu has suffered a number of major setbacks
The image of her blisters was also a reminder that suffering from these is just one of many physical problems holding her back. It was at the 2022 Australian Open that she first complained of being struck by her hand as she bowed out in the second round.
Others are well documented and reinforce the idea that success for her in 2024 will manage to remain in one piece to eventually put together a complete season.
If that happens, she's unlikely to be stuck on the fringes of the professional game along with others whose rankings have fallen into the low 200s.
By the end of a whole year there will be a clearer idea about the future capabilities of a person who still has time to realize undoubted potential.
There will be many times when Raducanu will feel her status as a Grand Slam champion as a burden, but when it comes to playing opportunities it is certainly an advantage as it brings with it the possibility of wildcards being largely available.
Expect much of this to be taken advantage of in the coming months and it is one route to the Australian Open main draw if her 'protected' ranking of 103 – her ranking before she was injured – proves not to be high enough. She is currently six below the entry limit.
The Australians are keen to include as many recognizable names as possible in their event, but it can be complicated. Only three invitations are likely to go around once the commitments are fulfilled, to be handed out to the play-off winners and via reciprocal arrangements with other countries, plus one that will undoubtedly go to 2018 champion Caroline Wozniacki.
There is an argument that it might not be the worst thing if Raducanu misses out anyway and is 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 played relatively little high-level tennis: only 64 main draw matches at full WTA Tour level and only 49 against top 100 players.
After her Flushing Meadows triumph, it was pointed out that she had missed many of the building blocks needed to maintain a top career.
This is even more true now, because while there has been a shortage of truly outstanding players at the top of women's football in recent years, the overall depth has improved. She is also a target for opponents, although perhaps less so than before.
One thing that has become clear about Raducanu is that she is determined to do things her own way. If she achieves the condition she desires, we will discover whether her and her father's sometimes unconventional approach is the right one, or a major miscalculation.
It is a source of bafflement to some that she has not assembled a tailor-made coaching and fitness team around her and is largely reliant on the Lawn Tennis Association staff to aid her comeback.
Raducanu showed she was nearing a comeback by sharing a post of her blisters on her hands with the caption “welcome back,” saying the 21-year-old would be back for the new season
The key for her now is finding a way to stay fit and healthy for the foreseeable future
This month she missed her planned return to an exhibition in Macau. Instead, she left for Hong Kong to combine training with a commercial commitment for HSBC.
No, this is definitely not an ordinary British number 9.
With little hardcore match competition behind Raducanu, expectations should be tempered as to 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 certainly be to stay healthy.
If rebuilding her ranking means Raducanu goes back to qualifying tournaments, or revisits some of the less glamorous tournaments of the professional tennis circuit, that shouldn't be seen as a weakness or a lack of ambition.