In a television interview immediately after her victory in the Wimbledon girls’ final in 2008, Laura Robson was asked how she would feel about facing the likes of Venus Williams in future years. “I’ll take her down,” the wide-eyed 14-year-old said with a grin.
Williams, who had just won her fifth Wimbledon title at the time, may now be a shadow of the player she was five years ago, but there could be no hiding Robson’s joy here yesterday when she made her prediction come true. The 19-year-old Briton’s 6-3, 6-2 victory in her first meeting with the 32-year-old American was every bit as convincing as the scoreline suggested and gives her the ultimate challenge on Tuesday night when she faces Williams’ sister, Serena, the world No 1.
It was Robson’s second successive big win following her parting of the ways with her coach, Zeljko Krajan, after the world No 39 claimed her highest-ranked victim so far when she beat Agnieszka Radwanska, the world No 4, in Madrid last week. As an interim arrangement Robson is working this week with Sven Groeneveld, one of the Adidas coaches, and Lucie Ahl, from the Lawn Tennis Association.
When the draw for this week was made Robson’s mother reminded her of the interview she gave five years ago by sending her a copy ("as if I could ever forget saying something so stupid," said Robson, now 19).
"I was pretty pumped," she said when asked what she had thought when she saw the draw. "It was definitely a tough draw, but I’ve had my fair share of easier draws this year that I haven’t taken advantage of, so I was really excited to get out there today. Sven was telling me to calm down before the match because I was jumping around for about an hour. I had so much energy because I was so excited.
"I saw Venus play Wimbledon when I was about 10. I was blown away by how hard she hit the ball. When she hit it in the centre of the racket today it was basically point over."
In truth there were not many occasions when Williams hit the ball sweetly. The world No 24, who has never looked the same since her diagnosis with the incurable auto-immune disease Sjögren’s Syndrome two years ago, rarely had control of her ground strokes and her second serve was pitifully slow.
The conditions, with a fierce breeze blowing clay around the court, made for an error-strewn match, but Robson coped well on her first appearance at the Foro Italico. The match was played in the imposingly beautiful centre court, although the crowd was sparse as the locals headed for the pizza and ice cream stalls in readiness for the subsequent all-Italian encounter between Fabio Fognini and Andreas Seppi.
Robson saved two break points in the second game, but took command after breaking to lead 3-1. The Briton hit six double faults in the first set but settled down in the second, striking some characteristically potent ground strokes and showing admirable control in the tricky conditions.
"She didn’t play her best and it’s always hard to play a high-quality game of tennis in the wind," Robson said. "I wish it could have been a better standard, but I’m happy to have won."
In the next round Robson will attempt to become only the eighth player in history to beat both Williams sisters in the same tournament and the first since Jelena Jankovic here three years ago.
Robson said she had always wanted to play Serena. "She’s playing pretty much the best tennis of her life right now," Robson said. "She’s not losing at all. It’s going to be insanely tough, but I’m going to go out there with nothing to lose."
Serena, who watched all of yesterday’s match, said Robson had "a great game" and added: "She’s really young still, she’s just so free and she looks great on the court, and is so smooth. She has a great, great game and she’s a leftie, so that just adds a whole notch to her level. And to top it off I think she’s a great girl, a really, really nice girl."
Robson’s ranking is such that she is now on the verge of being seeded for Grand Slam tournaments, which would mean she would avoid seeded opponents for at least three rounds, but she admitted: "It seems like I prefer playing seeded players anyway, so maybe it’s a good thing if I’m not seeded."
The Briton said she was happy with her temporary coaching arrangements. "It’s obviously working. I’ve worked on and off with Sven since I was 11 or 12, so he knows my game really well. I really understand what he’s trying to tell me."
The Briton said the parting of the ways with Krajan had come about because "his way of working was just different to mine" and "we didn’t have enough in common and I think you need to really get on with your coach on and off the court".
Asked what she thought about Krajan saying, following the split, that she was immature, Robson said: "I think I do lack maturity, in press conferences anyway. We just didn’t click. He’s free to say whatever."