A year ago at Flushing Meadows, Laura Robson stunned the tennis world with the two best wins of her young career, over Kim Clijsters, the former world No1 who subsequently retired, and Li Na – whom she faces again this week after beating Caroline Garcia in straight sets on day three of the US Open.
The French teenager is 43 places adrift of Robson in the world rankings and, although the 19-year-old has the sort of awkward game to trouble anyone inside the top 50, her only conquest in that category was Zheng Jie (47) at Wimbledon this year. While Garcia has not quite trained on since reaching the junior final here two years ago, Andy Murray singled her out for praise in Paris when she gave Maria Sharapova a fright in the French Open.
"The girl Sharapova is playing is going to be number one in the world one day caroline garcia, what a player u heard it here first," he tweeted during that match, which the Russian won after taking 11 games in a row.
Whatever potential Garcia has, Robson, seeded 30 here and nine months older than her, has more – and it showed in the end on Wednesday, as she ground out a conservative but impressive 6-4, 7-6 win in an hour and 35 minutes.
There was little in the first set, as each held serve without threat, until the 10th game when Robson cashed in on the first break of the match. Garcia, under pressure behind the baseline, drove a forehand wide – and responded to the setback by slamming her racket into her bag during the interval.
Robson had the wrapping on her right wrist replaced, although she said after her first-round win over the Spaniard Lourdes Domínguez Lino that it felt "fine". Although it is her non-dominant hand, clearly it affects the efficiency and power of her two-fisted backhand. It is as well she does not need her right hand for serving, because her left performed beautifully for once, having troubled her for several months.
Robson was in control of the second set until the 11th game, after an hour and 20 minutes of high-quality tennis, when her ball-toss jitters returned and she double-faulted for the first time in the match to hand Garcia a break.
She squandered the chance and double-faulted on set point, Robson forcing a tie-break with a withering backhand down the line. A ninth ace and a second double fault later and she had was over the line, although the fighting Garcia saved three match points. It's never dull with Robson.
Rain disrupted play until early evening on Wednesday and, of the players to go through, Li and Agnieszka Radwanska stood out.
Li put in another sound performance, beating the Swede Sofia Arvidsson by the same score with which she dismissed Olga Govortsova in the first round, 6-2, 6-2.
"After last year I think both of us have improved a lot," she said of the prospect of a rematch with Robson. "I am really looking forward to playing her. It will be really challenging. She is a lefty, aggressive. Also, I want to prove to myself if I can do better than last year."
Radwanska, who beat the double double-barrelled Spaniard María-Teresa Torró-Flor, 6-0, 7-5 in an hour and 27 minutes, returned to the Tour only this week, after the death of her paternal grandfather. She left the Cincinnati Open suddenly to attend his funeral and spoke on Wednesday about the influence he had on her and her sister, Urszula, growing up in Krakow and in Germany, where their father was a club pro.
"There are a couple things in life that are more important than tennis," she said. "It was an easy decision, because it was the moment I had to be with my family. I owed him to be at the funeral." Next up for Radwanska is the No32 seed, Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who put out the young Australian, Ashleigh Barty, 6-4, 6-0.
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image: © Bruno Girin