Keep this to yourself but Britain is actually not half bad at sport. No, really, we are. Don’t laugh; we Poms have finally cracked it.
At the risk of being accused of unabashed gloating (although I see nothing wrong with that myself), let me recap our recent achievements: 29 gold medals at the Olympics, 65 medals in all, third place in the medals table a Tour de France champion and a male Grand Slam champion (our first for 76 years – take a bow Mr A. Murray of Dunblane). Not bad, eh? Now tell us we only succeed at the sitting down sports.
In the past, tennis was always our most glaring weakness. We ran a cracking little tournament in Wimbledon but could our boys win the thing? Could they heck as like. Actually, they still haven’t, but at least Muzza got to the final last year and now that he is an Olympic and US Open champion, you would have to fancy his chances in SW19 come July.
And just like London buses, you wait for an age for one to come along and then three turn up all at once. So just as we were getting used to celebrating the Muzz’s successes, up popped Laura Robson and Heather Watson to start making waves on the women’s tour.
Robson first announced herself to the world by winning junior Wimbledon in 2008. She was only 14 and yet, in a country starved of success on those hallowed All England Club lawns, she was expected to become a world-beater overnight. That was never going to happen – even Martina Hingis took a while to build up a head of steam after she left the junior ranks – but now, four years later, Robson is making her mark in the professional ranks.
She broke into the world’s top 50 just over a week ago, although she dipped back to No.53 as the Open started, and at the US Open last September, she ended the career of Kim Clijsters, backed up that win by beating Li Na in the next round and then made Sam Stosur work for her fourth round win (Robson staved off eight match points before Australia’s finest closed out the victory). And all that after winning the mixed doubles silver medal with Muzza at the Olympics.
Now she faces Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion, for a place in the third round here in Melbourne: the world No.53 trying to dent the pride of the world No.8. No pressure there, then Laura. But that is just the sort of challenge Robson relishes; it is the run-of-the-mill stuff she has struggled with in the past.
“I’ll go in with nothing to lose again,” Robson said. “I seem to play pretty well when I do that so hopefully it will be a good match. It’s going to be tough, two lefties playing each other. I haven’t played a lefty in a while so I’ll just try to step up.
“I think it’s good that I’ve always managed to play pretty well in slams, but I think ideally I’d like to play a bit more consistently in the smaller tournaments as well, so that’s something that I need to work on. In slams I think it’s very easy to go on court with nothing to lose and I always have great support, so it’s very easy to play at slams. But consistency throughout the year is what counts.”
Not only is her game maturing – that lefty serve can earn her free points and her timing on the ball allows her to clatter winners with abandon – but her physique is improving month by month. After a few years enduring the usual growing pains of adolescence, Robson is finally injury free and able to train flat out. Now working with Zeljko Krajan, the man who turned Dinara Safina into the world’s top ranked player, she worked herself into the ground over the Christmas break to make herself fitter, faster and stronger. And all the hard work is now paying dividends.
“With strength work, it’s easy to see the difference in every session,” she said. “From when I started after Osaka (in October) to when I’d finished was a huge difference, so I’ll keep going. I can hit it pretty hard these days but I think the key is just moving around the ball enough to be able to hit it where I want to.”
Indeed, it seems the only thing that can stop Robson now is her own, teenage enthusiasm. It was just that, which nearly did bring her undone before the tournament started when she went to use the facilities at the shiny, new National Tennis Centre at Melbourne Park.
“The NTC here is really, really good and the ice bath is massive,” Robson explained, “but the first time I went in, I didn’t realise how deep it was so I just jumped in and dunked myself and couldn’t get the cold water out of my ears for several hours. That’s the front-page lead done then: nearly drowned.”
To lose today to Kvitova would be no disgrace, but given the way she has improved and developed since the Olympics, she knows that she can keep her head above water no matter who she plays. If only she could say the same about the ice bath.