Robson finds her feet in NYC
We tend to fall in love with the promise of greatness in tennis, and oftentimes that promise leaves us cold. For every story of potential fulfilled there are at countless others of pitfalls met along the way, of injuries that decimate careers and unforeseen technical liabilities that leave junior prodigies outclassed at the professional level.
The existence of all these harsh realities makes Laura Robson’s suddenly blossoming tennis career even more of a pleasant surprise to those aware of her promise.
The 18-year-old has gone from could be a factor at a Slam to definitely is a factor at this Slam in the span of two wildly entertaining matches this week at the US Open.
The fact that Robson, the youngest player in the WTA’s top 100, won the matches is one thing. But the manner in which she outplayed both Kim Clijsters and Li Na en route to her first ever round of 16 appearance at a Grand Slam is entirely another.
How has Robson done it? If you ask her recently hired coach, Zeljko Krajan, she hasn’t done it yet. “My job is to develop her game,” he told Daily Tennis in an interview earlier this week, “because she is very far from using her potential and everything she has. She doesn’t even know herself how good she is. I have to open her eyes a little bit more to what she has.”
Krajan, the current Croatian Davis Cup Captain who famously guided Dinara Safina to the No. 1 ranking (and also famously berated her when she didn’t perform well until she couldn’t take it any more), seemed an odd fit for the gregarious Robson when he was hired in early August. But the dour taskmaster has clearly hit the ground running with his new charge.
Robson may indeed be far from her true potential, but it’s hard to imagine her playing any better than she has in New York this week. And a lot of that success has to do with how well Robson is moving. “Her feet have always been her problem – moving them quickly enough to get in the best position to unload those powerful forehands, to not become tangled up on the baseline or stranded in mid-court,” wrote Kevin Mitchell of the UK Guardian on Friday. “She’s getting better, as she showed against Clijsters and Li.”
“Getting better” is an understatement. Robson’s footwork has been dramatically improved this week. But how does one improve these skills so rapidly?
Enter Jez Green, Andy Murray’s fitness trainer, who Robson Credits with improving her fitness and helping her avoid injury setbacks over the course of this grueling Olympic summer.
“I have been doing a lot of work with Jez over the last few weeks. I like the work and it seems to help,” Robson told reporters on Friday. “I think this summer has been the first one where I have been injury-free,” she added. “In the past I might have done two or three days of work. I needed a few days to get over another little niggle. This time I have just been able to keep going. That’s a big thing.”
Robson also cites a newfound willingness to stay in points longer as a reason for this week’s breakout. “In the last few weeks I have gained a bit of confidence, and the work that I have done with him [Krajan] has been very specific in terms of tactical stuff,” Robson said. “In the last few matches I think it’s noticeable that instead of just trying to hit a winner off a tough shot like I have done in the past, I’m just trying to make a percentage shot back. That makes all the difference really.”
When it comes to holding her nerve – something that the former junior Wimbledon champion has never been known for – Robson seems to have benefited from her silver medal-winning performance at the Olympic Games in London. “There were a few matches [at the Olympics] in mixed where I had to serve out in the match tiebreak,” Robson told reporters after she’d valiantly withstood a last-ditch comeback attempt from Clijsters on Wednesday.“I think that helped in terms of being able to serve it out today.”
Ultimately, Robson’s success at the 2012 US Open hasn’t been attributable to one single entity. Rather, it has been the result of a confluence of many ingredients all coming together to create a formidable player on the rise.
Call it the perfect tennis storm. And we haven’t seen the epicenter yet.
Pundits may be quick to anoint the World No. 89 and first British Woman to reach the fourth round of a Slam since 1998 as a future queen of the women’s game, but Robson still sees herself as a work in progress. When asked if she was already viewed differently by her peers in the locker room after her success this week, Robson was quick with her reply.
“I’m still a baby,” she quipped.
Maybe so, but probably not for long.
Chris Oddo is a San Francisco-based freelance tennis writer who fell in love with tennis the first time he saw Martina Navratilova serve and volley. His work has been published in Tennis.com, USA today, SI.com and various other tennis publications.”