Robson hits wall after flying start
Hantuchova overcomes impressive challenge of battling British teenager
Tuesday 23 June 2009
Off the court it was like taking a step into Wimbledon's past. Ann Jones and Virginia Wade, two former champions, were sitting in the second row. Behind them were Chris Gorringe, the former chief executive of the All England Club, John Barrett, the BBC's erstwhile voice of Wimbledon, and Jane Henman, mother of Tim.
On the court, however, was a vision of the future. The first day of the 2009 Championships yesterday featured not only the opening of Wimbledon's new Court Two but also the first senior appearance of Laura Robson on the lawns of the world's most famous tennis tournament. Her debut ended in a 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 defeat to Daniela Hantuchova, a vastly more experienced former world No 5, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that this was the start of what will be a long and productive career here for last year's junior Wimbledon champion.
At 15 years and five months Robson is the youngest Briton in the modern era to play here and the youngest from any country since Martina Hingis in 1995. From the moment she served an ace on the first point Robson played with an assurance and maturity beyond her years, going a set and a break up before Hantuchova took control.
Many juniors win matches through consistency and reliability, without ever taking undue risks. It is a strategy that can bring success among their contemporaries, but it rarely works out in the big wide world. Robson, in contrast, is a naturally attacking player, always prepared to go for her shots. Forget her 14 double faults yesterday and count instead the 10 aces and flow of winners from both her first and second serve. Being left-handed is an advantage against most opponents – rarity value alone benefits "lefties" – but Robson also serves with great power.
The double faults were the result not so much of nerves but of an admirable commitment to attack. Nevertheless they carried a heavy price. Robson served two double faults on all three occasions that her serve was broken in the first two sets. In the final set a double fault gave Hantuchova the first break of serve in the sixth game and another secured victory on her second match point, an ace having saved the first.
For the first hour Hantuchova was outhit as Robson struck big ground strokes and impressive drive-volley winners. The only noticeable weakness was her movement. Robson often looked heavy-footed and might have been given more problems by an opponent with more variety to her game. The Briton, nevertheless, is a growing girl and there will be plenty of time to work on her physical development.
There were nerves aplenty at the start, but they were all on Hantuchova's side of the net. Asked afterwards what had been on her mind before entering the court, Robson replied: "Nothing really. I was kind of thinking about what the towels were going to look like this year. They're really nice. But before I went on I was completely fine. I wasn't nervous at all."
The new court is a splendid addition to the All England Club. Thanks to a sunken surface, 3.5 metres below ground level, the surrounding trees and the spire of St Mary's Church are still in view from most seats. When you enter the 4,000-capacity arena it is surprisingly big.
Support for Robson was given with traditional British reserve and respect for the opponent, though it was loud enough to drown out the cries of Robson's brother. She explained later: "Last year he would shout out, 'Mess her up!' during my matches. This year he changed to a woof, like a dog bark. Completely random. Apparently he did it quite often, but I didn't hear it."
Robson raced into a 3-0 lead, dropped serve for the first time in the fifth game but broke back immediately and served out for the set, despite suffering the unnerving experience of an emergency vehicle sounding its siren on the adjoining Church Road on her first set point, which she failed to convert.
Robson broke to lead 3-2 in the second set, but Hantuchova finally started to open her shoulders and quickly turned the match around, winning 10 of the last 13 games. The 26-year-old only just missed out on a seeding and is a veteran of 33 Grand Slam tournaments who has never lost in nine first-round appearances here.
"Her serve is very good," Hantuchova said afterwards. "She was hitting a couple of aces a game and was very smart how she was using it. It didn't feel very good being a set and a couple of games down and getting kicked by a girl 11 years younger than me."
Robson, who will be back to play doubles and to defend her junior title, said she felt "a little bit upset, but pretty proud of myself". She added: "I thought I played really, really well for a good part of the match, and then in the end just a couple things let me down a bit. I hit a couple more double-faults than I would have liked to, especially on the big points.
"When I was the break up in the second set I just got really nervous. I made a couple more mistakes than I should have, but she started playing more balls in the court and getting more returns in."
The 15-year-old's performance was as impressive in the interview room as it was on the court. Asked why she thought she had lost the initiative, Robson told one reporter: "Thanks for rubbing that in." When someone else asked if she found it hard to get time to socialise, Robson replied with mock indignation: "I socialise. What do you want me to say – that I've got no friends?"
Pressed further about what she does in her spare time, Robson said: "I watch 'Gossip Girl', but season two is finished so I'm depressed. I don't know. I just do normal stuff."
"Normal stuff" off the court, maybe. On it, there is nothing normal about the most exciting female player Britain has produced in generations.
Laura's exams prove a testing time for Mum
Watching her daughter make her senior debut at Wimbledon yesterday was the easy part for Kathy Robson. For the last three weeks the greater headache has been organising the 15-year-old's English GCSE exams, which fell in the middle of the recent French Open.
Mrs Robson made arrangements for her daughter to sit the exams at a British school in Paris, butwhen she was knocked out in the second round she had to find somewhere else in London.
"It was murder trying to organise the exams," she said. "Other kids don't have that sort of pressure and I don't think it's really fair, though I wouldn't have it any other way."
Mrs Robson said she thought Laura had played well and was pleased that she had gone for her shots yesterday. "She wanted to enjoy herself. Monica Seles is a hero of Laura's and she heard the other day that Monica had said that the most important thing was that she should enjoy it. I told her this morning to remember that when she went out there."
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