Laura Robson: 'How I look is not important. How I hit the ball is'
The 20-year-old can't play at Wimbledon, but will be there for the BBC. She talks to Kate Youde about body confidence and her 'monotone' voice
Sunday 15 June 2014
As a top tennis player, Laura Robson surely enjoys the sporting bragging rights in her family. Not so, at least when it comes to trophies.
That honour goes instead to mum, Kathy, a former basketball player. "She does still have the biggest trophy of the family, which is very upsetting," jokes the 20-year-old. "I'm a close second. It's from an under-12s tournament where they just try and give you the biggest trophy possible to make you feel good about yourself."
She does, however, have an Olympic silver medal, won with Andy Murray in the mixed doubles at London 2012.
Plans to add to the trophy cabinet are currently on hold as the left-hander, who lost her British No 1 ranking to Heather Watson last week, recovers from surgery to repair the wrist injury that has kept her out since January. It means missing Wimbledon, the tournament that brought her to the nation's notice six years ago, when she won the junior girls' title. When the competition gets under way a week tomorrow, she will be part of the BBC commentary team.
It wasn't a decision Robson took lightly. For a long time, she didn't watch any tennis or check live scores because it was "too depressing". "I'm definitely going to be very jealous of everyone playing and that's something I had to think about a lot before I agreed to do it, just whether I'd be able to actually sit and watch all these people playing on the court that I would want to be on," she says. "But I think I'm past that, and I'm just happy for the people that are doing well at the moment."
She has work to do before taking to the airwaves, however, after being told she has to be herself "with an extra 15 per cent".
"My voice is apparently quite monotone and so if something's 'fantastic' it's not just 'fantastic', it's 'fan-tas-tic'," she says more slowly and expressively, articulating every syllable.
A fellow commentator is the reigning Wimbledon champion, Marion Bartoli, who the presenter John Inverdale last year told Radio 5 Live listeners was "never going to be a looker", causing a storm of protest. Bartoli and Inverdale have since commentated together on the French Open for ITV.
Robson is diplomatic when I ask whether she thinks Inverdale should have been sacked over the controversial comment. "I mean, I think everyone says stuff that they don't mean at some point, just not everyone says it on national TV in front of a couple of million people," she says. "But I think really it's Marion's and John's business and if they've put it behind them then I guess everyone [else] can as well."
Not that she has no views on sexism in sport. When we meet on the day of the French Open final – between Maria Sharapova and Simona Halep – she has found it "totally unbelievable" that most of the headlines she has seen about Halep concern the breast reduction she had five years ago, rather than how well she has played to reach the final, her first in a Grand Slam. "That's just ridiculous, seeing as it was not just so long ago but it's totally irrelevant to how she's playing," she adds. "I watched her semi-final and you see what she can do with the ball, and I don't see how you can even bring in boobs to the conversation."
We are chatting at the Chiswick Riverside club in London, where, in her role as Virgin Active ambassador, she is judging another final; that of the health club's Search for a Tennis Ace. Developed with the Lawn Tennis Association, the aim is to select two budding stars of the future to nurture in each of the next three years.
Her mother always encouraged Robson to be active, but she is aware body confidence issues stop some girls playing sport because they "don't want to get sweaty" or "mess up their hair".
"You know, sometimes I feel that too – if I play in a super humid country I feel totally gross – but it's just an enjoyable thing to do and, to me, it doesn't matter if you're playing competitively what you look like because it's more important how you're actually hitting the ball," she adds.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1994, Robson moved to Singapore and then the UK at six. It was at that age she first discovered tennis: if she picked up the balls when her parents and elder siblings, Nick and Emily, played doubles, she was allowed to play for 10 minutes. She also watched a lot of sport on television and was inspired by Australian sprinter Cathy Freeman and German tennis ace Steffi Graf. "I think there's so many athletes like that now that young girls can look up to; it's just finding the right person for you," she says.
While coverage of women's sport is overshadowed in volume by men's, Robson says having joint tournaments, so journalists are around for both men's and women's matches, has improved coverage of women's tennis.
A fan of other sports, she started supporting the American football team Carolina Panthers after seeing their player Cam Newton in a Florida gym a few years back. "This is going to sound like such a loser comment but he was warming up and skipping with a 20-kilo skipping rope," she reveals with an embarrassed giggle. "I mean, if you've ever seen someone do that, it's quite impressive… and so that was it for me, I was like, I think I love you!"
This youthful crush, like other enthusiasms, such as her love of hiphop karaoke, serves as a reminder that, despite a maturity gained from being away from home from a young age, she is still only just out of her teens.
She is a role model for many young players, just as she once looked up to Elena Baltacha, the former player who died from liver cancer last month aged 30.
After a deep breath, Robson recalls, "I first met Bally when I was about eight and we practised at the same club. At the time, she was British No 1, so it was such a big deal to just be on the court next to her and I used to stalk her practise sessions."
Robson is wearing a yellow Rally For Bally wristband, in readiness for the exhibition doubles matches being played today at three tournaments in memory of Baltacha, and to raise money for the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and The Elena Baltacha Academy of Tennis. Due to her injury, she will be cheering from the sidelines at the Aegon Championships at Queen's Club in London. "The plan," she says, "is to be able to play mini-tennis again by the middle of August."
British tennis fans will be hoping it won't be too long until she lifts a trophy to rival her mum's.
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