THE business of growing is seldom easy but when that process has to be done on the professional tennis circuit, it can be harder than ever.
A year ago, Laura Robson was a young, teenage hopeful, happily removing seeds from the US Open draw to reach the fourth round; twelve months on and as the No 30 seed she is expected to win matches. And yesterday, against Li Na, the world No 6, she took a straight sets pasting 6-2, 7-5.
It was a rematch of their third round encounter last year, a match in which Robson had announced herself to the rest of the locker room by beating the Chinese in three long and brutal sets. Given a chance for revenge, Li grabbed it with both hands. The errors that had helped Robson on her way last year were eliminated while the speed and accuracy of Li’s shot-making was finely tuned. Britain’s No 1 was never given a sniff of a chance and in just 81 minutes, she was ushered towards the exit.
“She served very well today and I thought she was returning really deep,” Robson said. “There wasn’t a lot I could do in some points. It was quite windy when we started the match, and so then on one side you would kind of have to play more spin, and, yeah, I wasn’t quite doing that very well.
“I thought she played really well. She didn’t give me too many chances in the rally, so I never felt I got a rhythm going with my ground strokes. It’s always tough. I thought she played a really good match.”
The first set whistled by her before she had a chance to draw breath. The sparsely populated Arthur Ashe stadium echoed with a few cries of “Come on Laura!” but try as she might, she could not come on any further. The errors came thick and fast while, on the other side of the net, Li stuck solidly to her task.
In all, Robson racked up 30 unforced errors and just seven clean winners, the sort of ratio that would struggle to trouble any opponent, much less one as experienced and as talented as Li. She could not land a single ace – Li served 11 of them – and instead, she managed to hit five double faults.
Last year, this giant-killing business had seemed like such fun. Happily singing along to Taylor Swift songs at the change of ends, Robson made winning look like a jolly hobby. Yesterday, as the music blared between games, she sat glumly in her chair, not tapping so much as a toe to the beat. She needed to find and answer to the metronomic play of her opponent.
For a handful of games at the start of the second set, there seemed to be a small glimmer of hope – Li’s form wavered slightly, just enough for Robson to gain the early break of serve. It was not to last, though, and as Li broke back to get back on level terms, it was all Robson could do to try and keep with her. When Li broke again, there was no way back and Robson’s US Open was over.
All in all, the world No 32 was not too disappointed with her work in New York. The wrist injury that had kept her away from the courts for the three weeks leading into the Open had left her short of match practice, so to get as far as the third round was not a bad effort. And the manner of her victories in the first two rounds – straight set wins in both – gave her cause for optimism.
“I feel I’m a more confident player,” she said. “In my first two rounds I thought I played really well and I closed out the matches really well, which is something that, you know, has improved a lot over the last 12 months. I think I’m going in the right direction. I feel like I’m improving and working on a more all‑around game, I would say. It’s going to take a lot of hard work, but I’m willing to do that.
“I’m disappointed about today, for sure, and I thought I could have played a lot better. But I always knew it was going to be a tough match. All in all, I guess it was an average week.
“I would love to be more consistent at the smaller tournaments. I think I have a lot to work on, and I think I can improve a lot more. Hopefully in the next few months I won’t still be ranked around 30.”
So now Robson must head back to London to train and prepare for the swing of tournaments in Asia at the end of the month.
And in between practice and training, she has an appointment with the dentist to have her wisdom teeth removed. It is all glamour being a teenage tennis player.
“All the other girls in the locker room are telling me their horror stories, so that’s not too nice,” Robson said. “Jamie Hampton was trying to scare me. She was like, ‘Oh, I couldn’t do anything for three weeks’. But I don’t really listen to her.”
Clearly, growing up on the tennis tour really is not easy.