WIMBLEDON has waited a long time to see a British man and woman make it through to the second week, and for a while on Court No.2 it looked like the wait would go on a bit longer.
Andy Murray had progressed with relative ease on Friday night, but Laura Robson was struggling in her third-round match against Marina Erakovic, the world No.71 from New Zealand.
Actually, not even struggling. Just floundering, apparently without a clue how to deal with her more lowly-ranked opponent.
And then she turned it round.
Not in an instant, and never with total conviction.
But turn it round she did, to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-3, and set up a fourth-round meeting tomorrow with Kaia Kanepi of Estonia.
The last time the home nation had a representative in each of the main events here was 1998, when Sam Smith and Tim Henman got into the fourth round.
By reaching last year’s final, Murray has already got further than did his predecessor as British No.1, and Robson will surely outstrip Smith’s achievements in time.
Already ranked 38th in the world, the Melbourne-born 19-year-old has enjoyed some impressive wins against top-ten players. In her first round here, for example, she defeated the No.10 seed Maria Kirilenko.
But there are also times when she looks every bit her age, and exhibits the kind of inexperience that makes her vulnerable when up against more seasoned campaigners.
There was a brief era not so long ago when the women’s game was ruled by those in their teens or early twenties, but those days are gone. Mental stamina and experience of dealing with pressure count for a lot these days, and, at 25, Erakovic has a lot more experience to draw on than Robson.
A native of Split in Croatia, Erakovic has a serve that may not be quite as devastating as the one possessed by that city’s most famous son Goran Ivanisevic, but in the first set it was more than enough to crush what feeble resistance Robson could muster. The older woman rattled through the seven games in just 22 minutes, and when her serve alone was not enough to win a point, she often had to do no more than wait for Robson to make an error, then exploit it.
The British No.1 had looked edgy for spells in each of her previous two matches, principally when she was on the verge of victory, but here she was nervous from the start. Still, serving first in the second set, Robson succeeded in getting off to a far more assured beginning. Having said that, she was still playing second fiddle to Erakovic, whose serving remained relentlessly efficient.
When Erakovic broke to go 3-2 up then Robson failed to convert her first break points in the next match, the end looked in sight. The Briton was at least playing a lot better than in the first set, but crucially, there was no decline in the high standard that Erakovic had set from the start.
Or not at that point anyway. But then, serving for the match at 5-4, Erakovic showed the first real sign of nerves, and a double fault gave Robson another chance to break, which this time she took. Serving again at 6-5 down after an easy Robson hold, the New Zealander threw in another two double faults as she was broken again.
The match remained in the balance even when Robson took a 2-0 lead in the decider, but it tipped decisively in favour of the home player when she saved three break points in the third game to go 3-0 up. There was still room for another minor attack of nerves when she lost her serve at 4-0 up, but she regained her composure to serve out.
“In the beginning she was just playing really, really well,” Robson said after claiming her place in the last 16. “And her serve was firing, so I wasn’t getting a chance on her service games, then I wasn’t quite hitting the ball well enough in my service games. So she was just on top of things. That’s the way it goes sometimes. But you just have to hang in and wait for them to start making a few errors.”
Resisting the urge to tighten up as the result of your own errors is just as important, and Robson succeeded in that respect just in time. The match was far from being a thing of beauty, but it was a valuable lesson in the teenager’s continuing progress.
As far as tomorrow goes, the specific lesson has to be: play like that again and you’re out of the tournament. World No.46 Kanepi, who beat Alison Riske of the United States 6-2, 6-3 yesterday, is more physically powerful than Erakovic and probably mentally tougher too.
If Robson does get past Kanepi, her quarter-final opponent is likely to be Serena Williams. So, while a British man and woman are in the fourth round for the first time in 15 years, we should not hold out much hope of them both getting to their final. Not this year anyway.