Sydney Classic 2022: Raducanu loses first match of season to Rybakina in packed Sydney draw

Raducanu withdrew from Adelaide last week following Covid; Murray gets opening win; other Brit news

Emma Raducanu
Emma Raducanu (Photo: WTA / YouTube)

It is still hard to believe that the young 19-year-old Briton, Emma Raducanu, reached the fourth round of Wimbledon in just her second main-tour tournament, and two months later went on to win the US Open—without dropping a set, without even facing a tie-break—and become the first ever to win the title via qualifying.

Her star has, not surprisingly, burned brightly since then, with accolades from all directions. But for a woman of such limited experience in such intense limelight, it was always going to be a huge test of character to maintain the same level once she had the ‘target on her back’ of a being a Major champion.

She went on to win two matches in Romania in late October, but has since faced an uphill battle to reassert the glittering tennis that won over the New York crowds in September.

She changed her coach, and then as she prepared to continue her warm-up at the Mubadala Championships in Abu Dhabi, she tested positive for Covid, and went on to withdraw from last week’s Melbourne 250. So Sydney this week was her first chance to put her form and fitness to the test in 2022, and what a test it would be.

After winning the Adelaide 500 event last week, world No1 Ash Barty withdrew, and she was followed by another Major champion, world No9 Iga Swiatek, who lost to Barty in the Adelaide semis.

But even without those two, the entire eight remaining seeds were ranked in the top 13, up to and including the woman who nabbed the No9 seeding, Elena Rybakina.

And it would be the tall Kazakh who Raducanu faced in Round 1 in Sydney, a first meeting between two players at career-high rankings.

Make no mistake: This was a tough first match after so many weeks away from the heat of competition. Rybakina, only 22 herself, had been building on her reputation since the resumption of the tour in August 2020. Ahead of that coronavirus closure, she won Hobart, and made the finals in St Petersburg and Dubai. Come the out-of-season clay swing in late 2020, she was also runner-up in Strasbourg, and last summer, she reached the quarters of the French Open and the semis of the Olympics.

And so to 2022, and Rybakina began with a bang, a final run in Adelaide, losing to Barty. So she had match-wins and court-time under her belt, and her big serving had already yielded a tour-leading 37 aces in those five matches.

So despite their relative proximity in the ranks, Rybakina looked the stronger, more dominant and confident player almost from the first ball against the 18-ranked Raducanu.

The 6ft tall Rybakina opened with a love hold, but Raducanu could not find her serving rhythm and double-faulted twice. She then hit a backhand long for break point and double-faulted again on a second break point to go 0-2.

The Briton continued to struggle with the power and penetration of Rybakina’s ground strokes, and was broken again, 0-4. What is more, the Kazakh’s own serving was keeping a tight hold on proceedings.

Serving at 0-5 down, Raducanu hit another double fault for break point, and netted a forehand to concede the set without a game.

Certainly Rybakina had played a strong, confident set, applying the pressure from the back of the court and deploying the odd deft shorter shot, too. But the Briton looked tight: This was not how she wanted to play in her first match of 2022.

The start of the second set was also inauspicious as Raducanu continued to struggle with her serve, and was again broken immediately, 0-2. Finally, though, she got onto the scoreboard in the fourth game, and the arena roared in delight: There was no doubting where their support was directed. The problem for Raducanu and her fans was the quality of the Rybakina ball-striking. Another break, and the Briton could do little to stem the booming baseline strikes to the corners.

The impressive 22-year-old served it out 6-1 in under an hour, and goes on to face Caroline Garcia, with the winner likely to face another Major champion, No3 seed Barbora Krejcikova.

It will be the Czech’s first test of 2022 after a break-out year that saw her rise from No65 in January to qualify for the WTA Finals with the French Open, Prague and Strasbourg titles. She and partner Katerina Siniakova also finished 2021 as the top ranked doubles players after winning the WTA Finals title in Guadalajara.

But the top-ranked player in Sydney is No2 seed Garbine Muguruza, who capped a strong 2021 with the WTA Finals title, and last year also won Dubai and Chicago, and made two more finals—including the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne a year ago.

The elegant, big-hitting Spaniard is also a former Australian Open runner-up, in 2020, and is setting herself up as one of the favourites for this year’s big title, to add to the French Open and Wimbledon titles she already owns. She hit No1 in 2017; could she unseat Barty at the top five years later? Her form will be tested against No40 Ekaterina Alexandrova, in her first match of 2022—and the Russian won their last meeting in Shenzhen in 2020.

Olympic gold medallist, but unseeded in Sydney, Belinda Bencic kicked off 2022 after also being delayed by a Covid infection after her Abu Dhabi appearance. She won through to the second round in just over an hour, beating Beatriz Haddad Maia, 6-3, 6-2. She next faces lucky loser Oceane Dodin.

Beyond that for Bencic might be one of the form players of the latter part of 2021, Paula Badosa. The young Spaniard rose to No8 last November after winning Belgrade and Indian Wells, and she impressed again at the WTA Finals to advance to the semis. She lost last week to two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka, but won her first match of 2022 against another former Major champion, Jelena Ostapenko, 7-6(1), 6-1.

Other British results

Sydney Classic, ATP250

Andy Murray, who has not played in Australia since his major hip surgery at the start of 2019, scored his first win of 2022 over Viktor Durasovic, 6-3, 6-1, and next plays No2 seed, Nikoloz Basilashvili.

Dan Evans, seeded No3, plays on Wednesday.

Adelaide International WTA250

Heather Watson lost her opener to No4 seed Tamara Zidansek, 6-2, 2-6, 7-6(4).

Australian Open

Liam Broady, Katie Swan, and Harriet Dart reached the second round of qualifying after wins over Kacper Zuk, 4-6, 6-1, 6-2, Abbie Myers, 6-2, 6-4, and Federica di Sarra, 6-4, 6-3, respectively.

Main-draw seeds have also been confirmed:

Emma Raducanu No17, Cameron Norrie, No12, Dan Evans No24.

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