Robson gets her chance to shine

Britain's brightest young star makes her senior debut at Wimbledon today in the first game on the new Court Two. Paul Newman assesses how dazzling her future could be
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The Independent Online

Laura Robson and Wimbledon's new Court Two were always likely to be a marriage made in heaven and the knot will be tied here at the All England Club this afternoon. The new sunken arena looks certain to become a favourite with the crowds and there could hardly be a more appropriate player to feature in its opening match than last year's junior Wimbledon champion.

Robson's last match at Wimbledon was on the final weekend 50 weeks ago, when she beat Thailand's Noppawan Lertcheewakarn on a packed Court One to become the first home winner of the girls' title since Annabel Croft in 1984. This year she has a wild card into the senior event and will make her debut at noon today on the new 4,000-capacity Court Two, where the playing surface is 3.5 metres below ground level. Her opponent is Slovakia's Daniela Hantuchova, the world No 32 and a good player on grass.

"It's the perfect first match for the new court," Nigel Sears, head coach of women's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, said yesterday. Sears used to coach Hantuchova but will be rooting for Robson, who is by some margin the most exciting prospect in British junior tennis.

"It's a wonderful match for the crowd to watch," Sears said. "I'm sure Laura is welcoming this opportunity with open arms. She must be delighted and relishing the challenge of playing her first senior Wimbledon when she has such good memories from last year.

"This is a match in which she has absolutely nothing to lose. She can go out there and play. She's a wonderful shot-maker and I think the exciting thing about this match is that she's playing someone who is also an exciting shot maker. I'm sure Laura will give a good account of herself."

Robson, who is coached by a Dutchman, Martijn Bok, was only 14 when she won the junior title last year. At 15 and five months, she will become the youngest Briton in the modern era to play at the All England Club. She is the youngest from any country since Martina Hingis in 1995.

Only 10 younger girls have played at Wimbledon in modern times, including Tracy Austin, Jennifer Capriati, Gabriela Sabatini, Kathy Rinaldi and Andrea Jaeger. Capriati (14 years and three months in 1990) is the youngest of all, while Lottie Dod was the youngest champion, winning at 15 years and nine months in 1887.

Robson has played only junior tournaments for the last six months, but made her senior debut last September on the International Tennis Federation circuit, which is a step down from the main Women's Tennis Association tour.

She won her first match, against the Italian Alice Balducci in Limoges, and went on to reach the semi-finals of a senior tournament in Shrewsbury, where she beat two players ranked in the world's top 130, before winning an event in Sunderland. She also played one match on the WTA tour, losing in three sets to Iveta Benesova, the world No 42, when given a wild card into a tournament in Luxembourg.

Robson will be young enough to continue playing junior tennis until the end of 2012, but she should have graduated full-time to the senior circuit long before then. She is likely to enter more senior events this autumn, but at 15 is limited to a maximum of 10 professional tournaments this year.

The restrictions were introduced because of the number of cases of "burn-out" by teenage prodigies. Capriati, who at Robson's age was in the world top 10, left the tour at 17, while Jaeger quit at 18 to devote her life to charity and then became a nun. Nevertheless, there are plenty of successful teens who coped with fame. Hingis and Maria Sharapova, for example, were Wimbledon champions at 16 and 17 respectively.

Sears, a highly experienced coach, believes it is vital that young players and their coaches find the right balance between junior and senior tournaments and between practice and competition. "It's great that I can be so comfortable knowing that Laura has such a good support team around her," he said. "Martijn Bok is a really good coach and has done a great job finding the right balance for her.

"He chose just the right senior events for her to play in last year and has blended a nice schedule for her this year, giving her a certain amount of access to clay. That may not be her favourite surface, but it all helps with her development."

In January, Robson played in the junior tournament at the Australian Open, losing in the final to a 17-year-old Russian with considerably more experience. The Briton subsequently rose to No 1 in the world junior rankings but took a three-month break after an injury scare. Initial concerns that calf muscle pain was due to an injury were later discounted and put down to a growth spurt. She has grown several inches since last year.

Robson returned to competition in May when she played in a junior tournament in Milan before competing in the girls' event at the French Open, where she was knocked out in the second round. Clay is not her best surface and she looked forward to getting back on grass, although her first task on returning home was to sit a GCSE exam. Since returning to Britain, Robson has played in exhibition events on grass at Nottingham and Liverpool, where she lost in the final on Saturday to Portugal's Michelle Larcher de Brito, whose grunting caused such a stir at the recent French Open.

Bok, Robson's coach, said earlier this year it was important the Briton focused on playing good tennis rather than worrying about results. "I think this is something that she needs to learn to improve in the future even more," he said. "It's what the good players like Federer and Nadal do really well. They play one point at a time, they focus on what they need to do and on what they know works for them. They're tough like that."

He added: "To play consistently she needs to get stronger and mentally stronger. If I see Laura I still see a player who can improve so much. That's the only thing I care about. I see her like a diamond there to be polished. The years coming up when she can work on her game are the most important. I just want to make her a better player. Mentally and physically that will come. She needs to keep working hard off the court as well."

Hantuchova, will provide Robson with a major test. The former world No 5 reached the quarter-finals here in 2002 and the fourth round in 2006 and 2007. "She has lots of experience," Sears said. "She's also very comfortable on grass. I think she'll just treat it very professionally, like any other first-round match in a Grand Slam."

Robson's rise Her path so far

*Born 21 January, 1994, Melbourne, Australia



*Gained British passport in February 2008



*Lived in Australia until 18 months old before moving to Singapore and then Britain. First entered a tennis academy at the age of seven.



*Won first tournament in 2007, the Nokia Junior Cup in Finland.

*First Grand Slam was Wimbledon girl's tournament last year, which she entered unseeded. Beat top seed Melanie Oudin on the way to reaching final without dropping a set. Victory over Noppawan Lertcheewakarn made her first Briton to win tournament in 24 years.



*Won first pro tournament in November 2008 and was finalist in the 2009 Australian Open girl's event.

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