British duo Laura Robson and Heather Watson reach top 50 and rewrite history
In Robson and Watson Britain has two of the world's best 50 women players for the first time since the heyday of Jo Durie, who tells Paul Newman they can only get better
Laura Robson made a small step for one player but a giant leap for British women's tennis by climbing three places in the world rankings. Robson's rise to No 50 left the 18-year-old three places behind her compatriot Heather Watson and means that Britain has two women in the world's top 50 for the first time for 25 years.
It was in 1987, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister and the Great Storm cut a swathe through the country, that Britain last had two women – Jo Durie and Sara Gomer – in the top 50. While Robson and 20-year-old Watson have some way to go to emulate Durie, who reached No 5 in the world rankings, the youngsters are steadily rewriting the record books. One of Gomer's claims to fame, as the last Briton to have won a tournament on the main women's tour, was erased three months ago when Watson claimed a title in Japan.
Durie, who has remained in tennis as a coach and commentator, believes that Watson and Robson will benefit from each other's presence. "It's nice to have someone else around, even if they are a rival," Durie said. "It does push you. In a way, I was very lucky when you look at the people I followed. Ann Jones won Wimbledon, Virginia Wade won Grand Slams and Sue Barker won the French. In my age group, five of us got into the top 100, so there were always people around.
"I was ranked in the top 20 when Sue and Virginia were in the top 10, so there wasn't actually a lot written about me. Can you imagine that now, what it would be like? But after Sue and Virginia retired and I was the one who was always up there, almost every defeat I suffered seemed to be a disappointment [to other people] because I hadn't won a Grand Slam. That was very difficult to deal with and it's one thing that I hope Laura and Heather won't have, because everyone will be so happy if they just get into the top 20."
Durie, who used to coach Robson, is reluctant to burden either player with unreasonable expectations but believes both have real potential. She has been impressed by Watson's steady progress and was delighted by Robson's big improvement last summer.
Although Robson's ball-striking ability has always been evident, there was a time when her mental strength might have been called into question. Last year, however, free from the injuries and growing pains that had restricted her physical development, she worked hard on her speed and movement, as well as on her tactics.
Instead of going for winners whenever she got into trouble, Robson learned to make opponents play the extra shot. Her improvement brought a rich dividend at the US Open, where victories over Kim Clijsters and Li Na saw Robson become the first British woman since Durie in 1991 to reach the fourth round.
"When the going got tough [in the past] Laura didn't always get going," Durie said. "I hope that now she has that kind of mindset because she'll need it. It's not going to be easy. You can't just rely on having big shots and being talented. You've got to stay in rallies.
"Now she's a very dangerous player and I think other players are sitting up and taking notice. It's not just a case of Laura being dangerous if you get her on the wrong day and she's smacking winners. Now you have to look out for her because she'll be running a bit more and pushing you."
Durie believes a place in the world's top 20 is clearly within Robson's reach. "Higher than that? Who knows. There's an element of luck, hard work, determination, all those factors involved, so you never know. Getting into the top 10 is quite difficult, but she's got a big game, she's got the modern game."
Watson has very different qualities. A natural athlete, she covers the court with great speed and defends superbly. Although Watson lacks Robson's power, Durie is impressed by her work rate and desire to improve.
"She knows she has to improve her serve," Durie said. "She's worked on her first serve, which is a lot better. Her second serve still needs some work. It is a bit too attackable by a top player. She's trying to add a bit more firepower to her game, but it's really difficult for a player like Heather because her mindset is that she really doesn't like missing. So that's a huge thing to change. I think she's really willing to do it. I just love the way she's trying to go about it."
Durie said Watson was "as hard as nails", which would stand her in good stead. "Sometimes it's not how pretty your strokes look or how well you hit the ball, it's the character you have behind it," Durie said. "Heather's got a great bubbly, optimistic, let's-go-for-it-whatever-it-takes kind of personality. That's sometimes what you need to drive your tennis."
Watson has been troubled by an elbow injury which forced her to pull out of this week's tournament in Hobart. It could mean that she will go into next week's Australian Open in Melbourne at less than 100 per cent for the second season in succession after suffering an ankle injury in practice last year.
However, both Britons have repeatedly shown their ability to rise to the big occasion. "You've got to love being in front of a big crowd, whether you play well or badly," Durie said. "There's nothing else like it in your life – and if you can't enjoy that, forget it."
Rising stars: Their stories so far
2004 Moves from home in Guernsey to Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, which is still her base
2009 Wins US Open junior title
2010 Wins first match on main WTA tour
2011 Breaks into world's top 100 after becoming first British woman to win a match at French Open for 17 years
2012 Becomes first British woman to win on Wimbledon's Centre Court for 27 years and ends country's 24-year wait for a tournament victory on WTA tour by winning in Osaka. Finishes year inside world's top 50
2000 Moves to Britain at age of six, having been born in Melbourne and then spent four years in Singapore
2008 Wins Wimbledon junior title at 14
2010 Wins first match on main WTA tour
2011 Wins first Grand Slam match, at SW19
2012 Becomes first British woman for 44 years to beat two Grand Slam champions at a Grand Slam event, knocking out Kim Clijsters and Li Na at US Open. Becomes first Briton for 22 years to reach a final on main WTA tour before losing to Chinese Taipei's Su-Wei Hsieh in Guangzhou
2013 Breaks into world's top 50
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