Laura Robson was given a jolting reminder of how hard the road back to tennis’s top table will be after she was thumped by the fourth seed Angelique Kerber in little over an hour.
The past two-and-a-half years have been long and frustrating for the former British No1, who has plummeted down to 283rd in the world rankings after sustaining a serious wrist injury in 2014. This, though, was painful for a different reason as she succumbed 6-2, 6-2 with little resistance.
“I definitely hoped for better,” Robson, 22, said. “My expectations are high so to not play my best was a disappointment. But she is fourth in the world for a reason.”
Robson looked sullen after her defeat, but she did perk up when it was suggested the stellar ascent of her fellow Briton Jo Konta showed how careers can change. “I think Jo took a wild card into Wimbledon last year, now she’s in the top 20,” she said. “So it can change very quickly. You get a couple wins behind you, get some more confidence, yeah, it goes pretty quickly after that. It would be amazing to be in the situation she’s in now. But we’ll see how it goes.”
While the odds of an upset were always against her, Robson came into this match knowing that at least she had history on her side. Five years ago, as a 17-year-old, she had beaten Kerber over three wild but enthralling sets at Wimbledon. At the time it seemed like it could be the launch of a new British tennis star – something a subsequent mixed doubles silver medal at London 2012, followed by breaching the top 30 ranks a year later, appeared to confirm.
That must feel a long time ago after a painful time, on and off the court. And on No1 Court she faced another problem: she was up against a very different Kerber. In 2011 the German had been ranked 88th in world. Now she was among the world’s best, with her confidence buoyed by her first grand slam victory at the Australian Open in January.
But the Wimbledon crowd still believed. At least initially. The cries of “Come on Laura” rang out before the first point, and while Robson’s nerves were evident at the start – there were two unforced errors, including a slapped forehand halfway down the net, as well as two double faults in her first service game – she also showed plenty of courage in saving two break points to hold her serve.
Kerber kept pressing and quickly forced three more break points in Robson’s next service game only to be denied again. But the dam could not hold forever. At 2-2 Robson clobbered a forehand long to lose her serve, and soon the first set was gone as the German put a run of five successive games together to win it 6-2.
True, there were times when Robson hit winners that had the crowd purring. Too often though the play followed a frustrating pattern: a couple of stinging forehands from Robson retrieved and recovered, then another one going long or wide.
Much of that was down to Kerber, of course. The German has a well-deserved reputation for being a supreme scrambler, who gets so many balls back that she eventually forces her opponent to overplay their hand, and she did so repeatedly.
Kerber had another, more surprising asset: her serve. It is not regarded in the game as particularly powerful or penetrating, but to Robson it represented an indecipherable puzzle. She won just three points on it in the first set and was no better in the second.
Too quickly Robson’s strengths, her powerful serve and thumping groundstrokes, became weaknesses. As she tired her sluggish movement on a surface that requires quick feet became more apparent too.
At one point she admonished herself, shouting “Laura, move!” after another forehand found the net, but it was to no avail.
Robson tried to pick herself up in the second set but all the momentum was with Kerber. On the second point of the set the German somehow managed to retrieve a monster forehand – and although it bounced up invitingly, Robson watched in horror as her attempted winner smacked into the net cord and dropped out.
When Kerber held again it meant that Robson had lost eight games in a row, but at 0-2 in the second set she showed considerable guts to hold serve. But it was merely holding back the inevitable: Kerber quickly wrapped up the second set and the match.
Afterwards Kerber was gracious to her opponent, saying: “I was a little bit nervous because Laura is a great player and I knew I had to play well against her.”
Robson announced that she has entered a couple of events on the lower-graded ITF tour next month in a bid to rediscover the winning habit.
“Hopefully this time next year I will be in a much better position,” she insisted. “But for now it’s about regaining confidence again.”
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