Wimbledon 2013: Laura Robson fever is merely the latest symptom of a national malaise
The Way I See It: The real story of British tennis was on Monday, when six Britons fell
Where will you be at 1pm today? Have you thrown a sickie to guarantee your place in front of the telly, or maybe you are a genuine victim of the mania sweeping this land and feel compelled to plug into every second of this delicious phenomenon called Laura Robson?
Call me an old curmudgeon but does not the febrile enthusiasm with which our nation has embraced Robson's Wimbledon odyssey both damn tennis in this country and expose our desperate yearning to celebrate anything, no matter how minor, in these two weeks? She has outstripped the requirements of formal identification. Robson is simply Laura.
No blame attaches to her, of course. She is entirely innocent in all of this. In fact, she would probably prefer not to have to cart the ball and chain of British infatuation on to Court One today. After her victory in the opening round on Tuesday the BBC's expert summariser Pat Cash declared her a future top five player and a Wimbledon champion-in-waiting. Virginia Wade, a woman of substance with three Grand Slam singles titles to her name, crowed about how much "game" Robson had. Fed Cup coach Judy Murray, mother of Britain's lone star Andy, tried to temper the absurd fanfare by restricting her eulogy to the claim she could trouble any top-tenner on her day. All this after one win, one bounce of the ball.
Robsonfever has been simmering since her success in junior tennis. Winning the Wimbledon girls' title in 2008, aged 14, was just about the worst thing she could have done if a quiet entry into the main draw was the intention. We seem to be counting back from a date etched in future stone when she becomes the first British woman to emulate Wade's Jubilee triumph of 36 years ago. This is not a debate. She will win Wimbledon. With each success we seek to identify another characteristic that marks her out as a regal presence, something special, a player so obviously blessed that winning a Grand Slam is a destiny fulfilled. It could not be any other way.
You fear for Robson when the alternative world view is put by an opponent with a more powerful racket arm and faster feet. That player was almost Marina Erakovic, an unheralded Kiwi who was reckoned to be easy meat. Today it might be Estonia's Kaia Kanepi, a young woman whose big-serving, rasping groundstrokes game is not unlike her own. Kanepi has her own story to tell, her own dreams to chase. They all do.
Robson is not special. She is a young player who has won three consecutive matches at Wimbledon. Serena Williams is not losing any sleep at the thought of facing her. That you can depend on. You hope Robson is connected to that reality rather than the soapy construction being whipped up with the fervour ordinarily reserved for royal births, deaths and marriages. In this incarnation, Laura becomes a princess in whites, the Kate Middleton of Wimbledon.
Ultimately, Robson's fate can only be determined on court in the crucible of competition, not as the projection of an undernourished nation mad with desire to see her fly.
What is it about this fortnight that strips from us our collective reasoning, as if some agency imperceptibly enters our craniums through the ear canal and corrupts the national wiring? Our brains turn to mush and we go gaga over the prospects of a teenager who wins three matches. It is the same kind of thing that compels folks from America to cross five time zones minimum to stand at a barrier along The Mall because "you Brits do royal weddings so well". And so we turn Wimbledon into ceremonial tennis. Except for Robson it is not.
The posting of a second victory was the signal for wholesale hysteria, including the revelation that she had been urged on in her quest by none other than Harry Styles. Yes, Harry bloody Styles, fighting with his comrades from One Direction over ownership of association with her in the Twittersphere. This sums up the whole thing, really. Robson has never met the lads. That is not a requirement in the virtual circumstances of their bonding. They know all they need to know of each other's fantastic lives, their intimacy nourished through the social media prism.
Who knows what Robson makes of it all? The real story of British tennis was told on Monday when six Britons went out. Since all needed wild cards to participate, the outcome was hardly a surprise. The advance of Robson and Andy Murray into the fourth round, the first Britons to accomplish this double since Tim Henman and Sam Smith in 1998, is celebrated as a historic achievement rather than a quirk that condemns us as a serious force in tennis. It was ever thus.
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