It was the tallest of tall orders for 17-year-old Laura Robson to eliminate the 6ft 2in former champion Maria Sharapova on a sun-bathed Court One yesterday, and nor did she, but after precisely an hour of an engrossing first set the pair were locked at six games apiece, and even by the time the match finished, with a 7-6, 6-3 victory and a place in the third round for the Russian, the future of British women's tennis looked just a little rosier than it had a couple of hours earlier.
"I think she has great potential," said Sharapova afterwards. "There will be many tournaments and many losses and many wins. It will just be important to learn from the situations. She's got to keep learning and keep playing and keep working hard. That's really what it comes down to, just grinding it out. Grinding out the matches when you don't necessarily have thousands of people behind you."
It was wise advice from the old sage of 24, but it should swiftly be added that Sharapova was three months younger than Robson is now when she won the Wimbledon singles title in 2004. With that kind of prodigy in mind, it might be termed wishful thinking to place Robson, and 19-year Heather Watson, a first-round casualty, at the vanguard of a potential British renaissance in the women's game. But there was more than a little evidence yesterday to suggest that the youngster, an unexpected junior champion here in 2008, has the weapons to go a good deal further in a Grand Slam. In particular it was a deep, accurate serve, and a powerful forehand, that for much of the first set forced Sharapova on to the defensive.
Robson had already made her mark on Wimbledon by the time she emerged into the sunshine on Court One yesterday. In 2009, aged 15, she became the youngest player in the main women's draw since Martina Hingis in 1995, and in her debut match sensationally took the first set off Daniela Hantuchova, a player 456 places above her in the world rankings. Here, with a mere 248 places between her and her sixth-ranked opponent, there were early signs that she might again upset the odds. By saving five break points in an opening game lasting eight minutes, Robson certainly showed that she has the mental toughness to prosper on the big stage, and then promptly broke the Sharapova serve to lead 2-0.
In truth, the fifth seed was playing some way below her considerable best, serving poorly, misfiring from the baseline and shrieking louder than ever. But that is to take nothing away from the left-handed teenager, who plays with real attacking verve, going for winners even when defence looks like the more sensible option. She seems unfettered either by her own expectations, or anybody else's. And to the voluble delight of the crowd she also made the more astute Hawk-Eye challenges, successfully querying a line call in the third game to help her to a 3-0 lead, then holding once more to get to 4-1.
For Sharapova, it must have seemed like deja-vu. At the same stage of the French Open she played 17-year-old Caroline Garcia, of France, and found herself a set and 1-4 down (at which point Andy Murray tweeted that Garcia was a future world No 1) before mustering a comeback. She broke the hearts of the Roland Garros crowd that day as she did their Wimbledon counterparts here; once a 17-year-old sensation herself, she is making a speciality act of taking on the uppity teenagers in front of their own people, and eventually putting them in their place.
Robson, in truth, was born in Melbourne to Australian parents, but she moved here when she was six and considers herself British to her fingertips, hence the tiny Union Jack on every fingernail. She certainly responded positively to the lusty support of the Court One crowd. Once Sharapova had broken back in that first set, it looked as if she might begin to assert her superiority, but the next five games went with serve to force a tie-break, which Robson led 4-2 only for her opponent, three times a Grand Slam singles champion and nothing if not experienced in retrieving difficult situations, to win the next five points to close out the set.
Sharapova raced to a 2-0 lead in the second, but again Robson showed her mettle, breaking back, only then to be broken to love herself. Slowly, inexorably the notional anthem on Court One had changed from, "Tell Laura I love her" to "What are we going to do about Maria?" The former champion was finding her rhythm and dealing much better with the Robson serve, which, though not yet a thing of power, finds all the right angles. Some of her second serves were scarcely fast enough for the fast lane of the M1, yet confounded Sharapova.
At 5-1 down there was another show of spirit from the teenager, who broke again and then held her own serve, but the writing was by now on the wall in fluorescent pink and it is the Russian who marches on to play the Czech, Klara Zakopalova. "I'm just happy I came through," she said. "She had many opportunities, being up 4-1, and in the tie-break as well, [but] I took my chances when I had them." As all champions must.
Andy Murray (World Ranking: 4)
Beat Ivan Ljubicic (Cro), (ranked 33) last night
Out! James Ward (Ranking: 192)
First round: Lost to Michaël Llodra (Fr), (ranked 35) 6-3, 7-6, 6-3
Out! Daniel Cox (Ranking: 273)
First round: Lost to Sergiy Stakhovsky (Ukr), (Ranked 46) 6-2, 6-4, 6-4
Out! Daniel Evans (Ranking: 301)
First round: Lost to Florian Mayer (Ger), (Ranked 18) 7-6, 7-6, 3-6, 6-4
Out! Elena Baltacha (Ranking: 68)
Second round: Lost to Shuai Peng (China), (ranked 20) 4-6, 6-2, 7-5
Out! Heather Watson (Ranking: 106)
First round: Lost to Mathilde Johansson (Fr), (ranked 70) 6-2, 4-6, 4-6
Out! Anne Keothavong (Ranking: 111)
Second round: Lost to Petra Kvitova (Czech Republic), (Ranked 8) 6-2, 6-1
Out! Naomi Broady (Ranking: 213)
First round: Lost to Anne Keothavong (GB), (Ranked 111) 6-2, 6-4
Out! Katie O'Brien (Ranking: 215)
First round: Lost to Kimiko Date-Krumm (Japan), (ranked 57) 6-0, 7-5
Out! Emily Webley-Smith (Ranking: 244)
First round: Lost to Klara Zakopalova (Czech Rep), (Ranked 35) 6-3, 5-7, 8-6
Out! Laura Robson (Ranking: 254)
Second round: Lost to Maria Sharapova (Rus), (Ranked 5) 7-6, 6-3.