Laura Robson: Wimbledon? Olympic gold? I'm not fussed
Britain's best female tennis player for more than two decades is keeping a level head amid the ups and downs of the circuit's merry-go-round. Paul Newman meets Laura Robson
It has been a typically up-and-down week for Laura Robson. The 19-year-old parted company with her coach, scraped through her opening match at the Madrid Open against a lower-ranked opponent, enjoyed one of her finest victories over the world No 4, Agnieszka Radwanska, and finally lost a late-night thriller, letting slip a 5-2 lead in the deciding set against Ana Ivanovic. Life is rarely dull when Britain's best woman tennis player for more than 20 years is around.
The upturn in Robson's form, after a run of seven tournaments in which she had won only two matches, may have something to do with the fact that the French Open is now only a fortnight away. The world No 41 usually saves her best performances for the biggest stages. At last year's US Open she beat Kim Clijsters and Li Na, both Grand Slam champions, to become the first British woman to reach the fourth round for 21 years. At the Australian Open in January she beat Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion.
Compare those, however, with some more recent results: a first-round defeat in Dubai against the world No 101, Yulia Putintseva, who is 12 months her junior; a second-round exit in Charleston to Eugenie Bouchard, the world No 114; and a loss to Paula Ormaechea, the world No 143, in Buenos Aires that contributed to Britain's Fed Cup defeat by Argentina.
"I think most people love those big matches because it's always so easy to play when you've got nothing to lose and you're playing against a higher-ranked opponent," Robson said when asked to explain those fluctuations in form. "It's definitely tougher playing against opponents that you're expected to beat."
Facing lower-ranked opposition is something Robson will have to get used to. Poised to return to the top 40 in the world rankings tomorrow, she now wants to break into the top 32, which would guarantee a seeding at Grand Slam events. It could happen in time for Roland Garros, though she would need an exceptional run in Rome this week to achieve that.
"Wimbledon would be a great one, just so that I could avoid a seed in the first round and really try to do some damage on the grass," Robson said. "If you're not seeded you could always end up playing Serena Williams in the first round. But it definitely takes a lot of hard work to get there."
Until last year some observers questioned Robson's willingness to do that work, although her ball-striking ability had never been in doubt. Joining forces last summer with Zeljko Krajan, the coach who took Dinara Safina to No 1 in the world, was a turning point as Robson showed a greater willingness to make opponents fight for every point and to improve her fitness.
Krajan, whose association with Robson lasted only 10 months, has since questioned her commitment, but the Croat is a notoriously hard taskmaster and it is all too easy to forget that she is still only 19.
Robson, who will work with adidas and Lawn Tennis Association coaches until she appoints a permanent replacement, is the youngest player in the world's top 50 and competing at a time when the physicality of the modern game, combined with rules to prevent teenage "burn-out", mean that women break through much later than they did in the past.
What does Robson see as the biggest differences in her game compared with last year? "I just worked really hard on everything," she said. "I was definitely more willing to chase balls down, which always makes a big difference. In general I just think I made my opponents work a bit harder in rallies.
"My game is always going to be aggressive and I'll always go for my shots. If I do end up on the defensive side in a point I just have to try as hard as I can to turn it around again."
Robson admitted her form was "very up and down... something I need to work on", but insisted: "I think it's just the way it's coming out at the moment. I'm definitely doing better than I was before at the smaller tournaments, but they can be really tough."
The Grand Slam events, however, clearly give her the greatest motivation. Robson described playing Kvitova in a Melbourne night session, having followed Roger Federer on to the court, as "one of the best things that has ever happened to me".
As for her biggest ambition, when asked if she would prefer to be Wimbledon champion, an Olympic gold medal-winner or No 1 in the world rankings, Robson said she would "take any of them. I'm not fussed".
The Olympics, nevertheless, have always been a big target, and her achievement in winning silver alongside Andy Murray in the mixed doubles last summer has whetted her appetite. "I've been brought up in a very sporty family and the Olympics was always a huge deal," she said. "Just to play last year was incredible for me. I'm already planning Rio. That's definitely in the back of my mind already."
Maria Sharapova, who combines a busy business life with her sport, is one of those who have proved that dedication to your tennis does not mean you have to be one-dimensional. Robson, who has a keen sense of humour, has a typical teenager's interest in fashion and music. Last year she persuaded the likes of Sharapova, Sam Stosur and Fernando Verdasco to take part in a hilarious "Gangnam Style" dance video which she made in China.
However, now that many of Robson's former school friends are at university, does she feel she has missed out on her teenage years, given that she has spent much of her time travelling the world playing tennis since the age of 13?
"In a way I guess everyone slightly wants what they can't have," she said. "There are times when I wish I could be at home a little bit more, but then again I've been so lucky to have travelled to so many places and experienced so many things that most of the people who are at uni would love to do. I think I'm very lucky and so far I wouldn't change anything."
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