When she won the junior Wimbledon title at the age of only 14, the British press were quick to tout Laura Robson as a future superstar of British tennis. Long starved of success on the women’s side, the media were desperate for a glimmer of hope.
Four years later, it was a return to the famous courts of SW19, albeit for the Olympics rather than Wimbledon itself that lit the touch-paper for a stunning rise up the rankings. In those intervening years, there had been glimpses of what she could achieve – a run to the semi-finals in Palermo was her previous best result, while she has twice troubled Maria Sharapova on the grass courts of Wimbledon.
Buoyed by a partisan crowd and partnering Wimbledon finalist and newly-crowned Olympic gold medailst, Andy Murray, she reached the final of the mixed doubles, securing a silver medal and forcing herself back into the minds of the nation. It was to be the start of a wonderful few months for the 18-year old.
A magnificent run to the fourth round of the US Open saw her defeat two former Grand Slam champions and worry the defending champion. Her victory to retire Kim Clijsters was notable for the way that she dealt with the pressure and the attention surrounding the match, while she achieved the rare feat of backing up that win by eliminating the in-form Li Na. While she eventually succumbed to Sam Stosur, it was not without showing great fight in saving eight match points and almost forcing her way back into the second set.
The next challenge for Robson was to take that form back onto the WTA Tour. Her first port-of-call was Guangzhou, China. She dispatched two of the home favourites in Jie Zheng and Shuai Peng, and hammered the talented, if a little erratic, Romanian Sorana Cirstea to become the first British woman to reach a WTA final for 22 years. Although she was unable to win in the final against Su-Wei Hsieh, going down 6-4 in the third set, it was a sign that she is beginning to realise the potential that she showed four years ago.
Speaking after the match, Hsieh’s coach, Paul McNamee said, “Laura is such a different player these days. The two (Hsieh and Robson) practised in Nottingham after the French Open this year and the difference between Laura then and now is chalk and cheese.”
So what exactly has changed for Robson in the past couple of months?
The most noticeable difference is in her movement about the court. Robson has always had great power, but her movement has been poor. Her speed along the baseline almost looked as though she had lead in her shoes while her turning circle would have made the Titanic look nimble.
However, following the silver medal at the Olympics, she started working closely with Andy Murray’s fitness coach, Jez Green, and there have been rapid improvements. It was clear at the US Open that she was quicker around the court, chasing down balls that she would previously have come nowhere near. She is gifted with excellent hand speed, so the ability to get to these shots allows her to force her opponent to play one more shot, keeping her in more rallies.
She has also linked up with a new coach, Zeljko Krajan. A Serb, who is well-known for a penchant for hard fitness work, this partnership can only help to further improve her movement around the court.
At the age of 18, she is already one of the most fearsome ball-strikers on the tour and as she develops, her serve has the potential to be a real weapon. At the current point in time, the serve is certainly still a work in progress – it can be inconsistent and she still throws in too many double faults – but she is working hard on it. As touched upon earlier, she has excellent dexterity and court-craft, and if she can continue to improve her movement, she potentially has the whole package.
The disappointment was clear after losing the Guangzhou final, particularly having fought back so well in the second set and taking a 3-0 lead in the decider, but she will learn from the experience, and I would be willing to bet that it will not be her last final.
The victories over Kim Clijsters and Li Na showed the level that Robson is capable of reaching even now. It is easy to forget that she is still only 18-years old – it seems so long ago that she had that glorious run at Wimbledon. However, she has recently become the British number 1, she is on the verge of the top 50 and it is only a matter of time until she passes that mark.
The real question is how high can she go? Paul McNamee said, “with her game, she is a top-20 player of the future.” Kim Clijsters did not say exactly how far she thought Robson could go, but said that she felt she could be a great player.
Top-20, top-10, even higher than that? It will take time and we shall have to wait and see. However, Krajan has already led one player, Dinara Safina, to the world number 1 spot back in 2009. He knows what it takes and he can clearly see something in Robson.
Who knows, maybe one day we could see Robson going into Wimbledon as the number 1 seed.