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Sunday, June 21, 2009

Laura Robson's growing up fast

Photo Titled Laura Robson
Laura Robson
Tennis is not what it used to be. For years, we Brits would settle in for two weeks of glorious disappointment at Wimbledon. Yes, we had the greatest tennis tournament on the planet but, no, we had no man or woman capable of lifting the trophy.

Some flattered to deceive – a certain Timothy Henry Henman springs to mind – but every year the end result was the same: no male winner since Fred Perry in 1936 and no female winner since Virginia Wade in 1977.

But then, like London buses, the potential champions came along two at a time. First there was Andy Murray, who announced his arrival as a gangling teenager in 2005 and now, four years later, returns as the world number three and one of the tips for the title. And then, scampering along behind in Murray's footsteps came Laura Robson.

A year ago she was a 14-year-old slip of a lass with a lefty serve and a fighting spirit who emerged, blinking, into the media spotlight as she won the junior tournament. She was the first British winner since Annabel Croft 24 years earlier. Now, just 12 months later, Robson is back with a wild card into the main draw. Three inches taller and packing a few extra pounds of muscle, Robson is also much more experienced and, with a world ranking of 482, she is relishing her chance to play with the grown-ups.

But Robson is no ordinary 15-year-old. True, she has spent much of this summer trying to juggle professional tennis and sitting her GCSEs, but away from her school books she is a remarkably mature young woman.

When faced with the massed ranks of hacks and scribes who get over-excited at this time of year, she smiles, answers thoughtfully and is not above cracking a gag or two. Where most teenagers are tongue-tied in the company of more than two strangers, Robson is articulate, self-assured and already a real pro when it comes to sharing her thoughts with the public. As a result, her response to the offer of a wild card was enthusiastic but realistic.

"I had no doubts about accepting the wild card because it’s just going to be an unbelievable experience," she said. "I'm really looking forward to getting back to Wimbledon. Last year it was really fun to play in front of over 10,000 people so hopefully I’ll get to do that again. But I’ll be happy on any court. Whatever court they put me on, I’m fine with that."

It is all a far cry from last year when, as the cameras pointed at Centre Court and the established stars of the game, Robson scythed her way through the junior draw on the outer courts. And the further she got, the louder the whispers became. A British woman with a chance of winning something? Good grief, this must be seen to be believed.

So as Robson tried to prepare for the biggest match of her life, she suddenly found that she was not alone. Word had spread like wildfire and if she thought playing the final on a packed Court One was nerve-wracking, now she could not move without a gaggle of fans and photographers following her every move.

"There were quite a few people watching my practice," she said. "So there was about a hundred there. I was thinking, you know, I usually don't get this many people watching my matches, let alone practice. But going onto Court 1, I was shaking because I saw the match before me and I saw how many people were on there. Then I had really, really good support, though.

"It's weird seeing yourself on the front page of every newspaper, and seeing yourself on TV as well, making quite stupid comments."

Robson, though, is a fast learner. Her experiences at Wimbledon were stored away and helped her negotiate the media spotlight that tracked her through the rest of the year as she built on her junior success and started to play with the seniors.

Although she was still just 14, she headed for the professional ranks and made her debut at a small event in Limoges. Coming through the qualifying competition she took her place in the main draw and won her first round match against one Alice Balducci from Italy.

From there it was on to Shrewsbury and a step up to a bigger Challenger event where she reached the semi-finals. The following week, she lost in the first round of the Barnstaple Challenger but she had completed her first three senior events. Now she qualified for a world ranking. Now she was officially the world No.550. Laura Robson had arrived.

This year began with a trip to the final of the Australian Open junior event where even her precocious talent could not overcome the three year age gap between herself and Ksenia Pervak. The Russian had been playing on the main tour for a couple of years and was ranked 360 places above Robson who, at that point, had played just five professional events and was still only five months into her professional career.

Now she is back at Wimbledon where she has her junior title to defend and that first match in the main draw to contemplate. Older – but not much – stronger and more experienced, she thinks she is ready for what is to come.

"From the sounds of it, there is going to be quite a lot of pressure on me," she said. "I don't know what I am going to do but all I can do is go on court and try my best. Win or lose, if I have tried my best then I cannot be unhappy."

All of this and she has not even got her exam results back yet.

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