ON PAPER, the difference did not look that great – just 27 ranking places and three years in age – but in reality, the gap between Laura Robson and Caroline Wozniacki was vast.
The Dane had endured a miserable clay court run towards the French Open and had not won a match in Europe but she knew just how to grind down a young woman with big ambitions but limited experience.
For all that Robson, Britain’s brightest and best, has a reputation as a giant-killer, a denter of reputations at the major tournaments, she had no idea how to stop the world No 10 from sailing into the second round 6-3, 6-2 yesterday. She will learn, of that there is no doubt, but on a quiet day at Roland Garros, she could not find a way into the match. It was as frustrating as it was disappointing for Robson and when she finally yelled “You’re playing into her hands!” as the first set ran away from her, the sparse crowd on Court Suzanne Lenglen knew exactly how she felt.
Wozniacki may not be the most exciting player to watch but she knows how to win matches. Winning grand slam titles has so far eluded her – she has only reached one final at the US Open and was duly clumped by Kim Clijsters – but racking up the run-of-the-mill victories is one of her hobbies. That consistency was enough to take her to the No 1 spot in the rankings a couple of years ago and even if she is not quite back to that level at the moment, she has a wealth of experience to draw upon, more than enough to deal with Robson.
“I think Caroline played really well and smart,” Robson said quietly. “She definitely knew what she wanted to do on court, and I just generally wasn’t able to get into the match. My shots just weren’t firing as well as they usually are today.
“It’s disappointing. She’s always capable of playing a really good tournament.
“She’s always a tough person to play. You always have to really beat her. She won’t give you many unforced errors as well. So I knew it was going to be a tough match. Yeah, I just made too many mistakes.”
Those errors were awfully costly – all 39 of them. True, Robson was racking up the winners with 25 to Wozniacki’s 11, but the Dane only fluffed her lines on ten occasions and that made all the difference in the world. At least the work Robson is doing on her serve had reduced the double fault count to six (it has been in double figures several times this year) but once Wozniacki had worked out a way to take the sting out of the Briton’s forehand, Robson was in deep trouble. When she served a double fault in the first game of the second set, she had clearly had enough. “It’s never ending!” she howled in frustration.
“I think definitely experience means a lot,” Wozniacki said. “I feel like I have been on the tour for a very long time now and have got to play a lot of matches. I know where I stand. I know how I play my best. Sometimes it’s not as easy to execute as it is in your head; in your head you know exactly what to do, but it’s not always easy to do it.
“She’s only 19. She’s so young. I know I’m only 22, but still, you know, it’s still three years older. I think it means a lot. Playing six times here, obviously playing on the big courts before and playing a lot of tough matches here has definitely helped today. I went in there and I had a tactic in mind. I had a game plan set. I was just going with that.”
The game plan soon became obvious: Robson likes to take the ball early and use her opponent’s power and pace. So Wozniacki gave her no pace and waited for her young rival to make mistakes as she tried to generate her own. It worked like a dream.
“I started off quite well,” Robson explained. “I had a couple of break points that I didn’t take. I think that got me off to the wrong start really. If I had taken those, maybe it would have been a different match. After that, I kind of was just going for a little bit too much. She moves so well, so I was just trying to get her out of the court. I wasn’t really moving forward myself so I was stuck in an awkward position.”
So the British contingent has been whittled down to just two with the tournament only two days old.
Today Elena Baltacha will attempt to win only her second match at Roland Garros as she takes on Marina Erakovic, the world No 92 from New Zealand while Heather Watson will test her recovery from glandular fever against Stefanie Voegele from Switzerland. Both matches are winnable but, as both women are coming back from illness and injury breaks, the form guide is irrelevant. The key will be, as Robson pointed out sadly after her brief experience of Paris: “Not to make so many mistakes.” If they can both do that, a place in the second round is a distinct possibility.