THE inquest was about to get started. The old tales of woe were about to be retold. Then, just as a vicar from somewhere in Surrey was starting a letter which began “Why oh why oh why is British tennis – apart from Andy Murray – in such a terrible state?”, Laura Robson recovered her nerve and took her place in the second round.
Every home player barring Murray had lost on Monday, and Heather Robson had joined them earlier yesterday with a 6-3, 7-5 defeat by American teenager Madison Keys. Robson, who had been given the most difficult draw, looked doomed to be added to the ranks of the fallen; but, in one of the best results of her career, she beat No 10 seed Maria Kirilenko, of Russia, 6-3, 6-4.
The wobble came in the second set, when, from 4-1 up, Robson’s service action began playing up. A quarter-finalist last year, Kirilenko sensed her chance and, if she had won the second set, would have been favourite to take the decider too.
But then, serving at 4-3 and 0-15, the British No 1 served an ace. That stiffened her resolve and, two games later, she was through to a second-round meeting with Mariana Duque-Marino of Colombia, the world No 117, who yesterday beat top-40 player Julia Goerges, of Germany.
It was only the second match that Robson, a former Junior Wimbledon winner, has won in senior competition here. In 2011, she defeated this year’s No 7 seed Angelique Kerber, of Germany, but then lost in the next round to Maria Sharapova. She has had difficult draws, including one three years ago against then No 4 seed Jelena Jankovic, but now, with Kirilenko out of the way, things are starting to open up for her.
“I thought I could win – I didn’t expect to win,” Robson said afterwards. “You know, I thought if I go out there and play well and try and dominate from the start, I would give myself the best chance to win. That’s what I was trying to focus on and that’s what I managed to do.
“I think I go out against the top players with nothing to lose, and, in the past, I’ve started out well in the first couple of games of the first set and then just not been able to hold on to that lead. I’ve been really happy with my progress in the last couple months with that.”
In those last couple of months, Robson has been working with Miles Maclagan, Andy Murray’s former coach, on an experimental basis. The way things are going, the temporary arrangement could well become more long-lasting. “We’re going to see how it goes and, hopefully, you know, keep playing like I did today,” added Robson, who teamed up with Murray at last year’s Olympics to take a silver medal.
As for that wobble in the second set, she said she had in any case been making modifications to her service action, and implied that the apparent nervousness displayed could have been a result of that. “If you’ve seen me play before, that’s nothing new, unfortunately.
“It’s something that I’m working on. Throwing the ball up, catching it, trying to find the right ball toss has been happening for a long time. You know, nerves start to creep in a little bit and you just lose the timing a tad. I’m in the process of changing my serve a little bit. So I just had to kind of refocus on doing the right things and keep trying to hit the big shots.”
At 19, Robson has already become the first Briton in 30 years to beat a top-five player, and clearly has immense promise. But the generation just behind her is already threatening to catch up: Keys, for example, only turned 18 a few months ago, and is ranked four places behind the 21-year-old Watson.
After missing two months earlier this year because of glandular fever, Watson has yet to get back to full match sharpness. She appeared to be in charge of the second set at one stage, and admitted that had been her chance to turn the tide against the American.
“I was a break up anyway in that set,” Watson said. “I shouldn’t have lost it.
“Madison played well. She served well throughout the match. I knew it was going to be a tough one and it was.
“I don’t feel like my game’s there yet, so that will come back with time, time to practise. I have a big gap now to get some fitness training in.
“Honestly, I wasn’t 100 per cent when I came back – but I think I came back at the right time. I wanted matches. I wanted to do fitness [training] as I was coming back with the matches.”
The last Briton to make her bow, Tara Moore, put up an impressive fight against the heavy-hitting Kaia Kanepi of Estonia, and saved three match points in a tense third set before eventually going down 5-7, 7-5, 5-7.