UK Stars On The Verge
Published July 16, 2010 12:00
"It was the worst performance by British women since the Open Era began."
These were the words on the lips of many English journalists writing about the disappointingly premature exit of all six British female players at Wimbledon. However, study their matches closer and you'll see flashes of genius and hard-fought battles. The results looked poor but the prospects are promising.
Laura Robson shot to fame in 2008 when she won the Wimbledon girls' singles title at the tender age of 14. Since then she has progressed onto the senior circuit, and she was given a wildcard into this year's Championships. The draw was tough on the Londoner, matching her against Jelena Jankovic - however, Britain's best junior rose to the occasion, and on her Centre Court debut and in only her sixth match on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, she rallied from 5-3 down in the second set before falling, 63 76(5).
Most impressive was Robson's composure. She may have started off nervously in the first set, with a double fault gifting Jankovic an early break, but she managed to find a way to settle down, firing 13 aces from her effective lefty serve. At 4-3 down in the tie-break she set up the point beautifully, taking Jankovic out wide to open up the court, but she missed an easy forehand down the line. A yelp of frustration was followed by a smile; despite the pressure Robson was enjoying the moment. In the end Jankovic's athleticism and experience proved too much.
Nevertheless Robson made an impact on legendary coach Nick Bollettieri, who compared her to former Wimbledon champion Lindsay Davenport, saying to the Daily Telegraph: "She doesn't have great lateral mobility, but her serve is a weapon and she puts the high ball away nicely. If she stands close to the baseline and uses her groundstrokes, she can be very dangerous." Considering Bollettieri's reputation for talent spotting, this bodes well for Robson's future.
British No.1 Elena Baltacha came agonizingly close to that elusive first round victory against Croatian teenager Petra Martic. Her preparation for the tournament couldn't have been better, reaching the quarterfinals at Eastbourne the previous week and starting the Championships on a career-high of No.52.
After steering herself into a commanding position, leading 62 53, Bally - as she is affectionately known - served for the match at 62 54 but, as she conceded, "got tight", and lost the set 7-5. Martic seized the momentum, breaking Baltacha in the first game of the third set and continuing to serve well for rest of the match, eventually sealing a 26 75 63 victory.
Letting a lead slip can be harder to accept than losing easily but the positive thinking Scot doesn't want to dwell on the past: "You know what, I'm No.52 in the world. I'm getting there. I'm rising up the rankings. I'm improving. It is the way it is. You've got to learn, you've got to move on, you've got to get better. That's what I'm going to do," she said after the match.
Nerves got the better of Anne Keothavong too when she let a 4-0 lead in the final set slip away to succumb, 36 62 64, to Anastasia Rodinova. The decisive game was at 4-3 on the British No.3's serve. The game lasted 15 minutes, with both players exchanging advantages, but was cruelly ended when Rodinova broke the Londoner with a net cord.
"I had my chances to win being 4-0 up in the third but I got a little nervous closing it out. Wimbledon is such a special tournament for British players and the pressure and expectations can sometimes get to you.
"Coming back from a serious knee injury is hard and I still believe I can get my ranking back inside the Top 50 which is why I'm still playing tennis!"
Katie O'Brien and Heather Watson both fell in three sets as well but according to Nigel Sears, head of women's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, O'Brien played the "match of her life" against Alona Bondarenko and Watson played a wonderful second set, "her movement and anticipation clearly world class."
Sears has overseen terrific progress in the women's game. From having no players in the Top 100, four girls have moved inside that mark over the last year.
So what does Sears expect from his girls at next year's Wimbledon?
"Winning more matches than this year! I'm sure we'll see more wins during the first week next year but realistically if we want to see British women in the second week, their rankings will need to substantially improve again."