Laura Robson, Heather Watson, Liam Broady, Oliver Golding, Johnny Marray… oh, and the small matter of Andy Murray.
If you follow tennis in the UK, you probably think the place has turned into Australia’s Gold Coast. Johanna Konta certainly thinks so. The 21-year-old Sydney-born pro adopted Britain as her home and looks set for a promising future on the WTA circuit.
But the brightest lights in the British WTA firmament right now are Laura Robson and Heather Watson. The two girls had breakthrough years in 2012 and seemed to revel in a game of tennis leapfrog.
Robson, who turns 19 this month, landed the first blow with a junior Wimbledon title at just 14. But Watson, who’ll be 21 in May, beat her into the top 100—climbing to No. 93 after the French Open of 2011.
Last year, however, the heat got seriously turned up. In the summer of 2012, Watson was famously passed over in favour of Robson as Andy Murray’s Olympic mixed partner. The duo went all the way to the silver medal.
The experience inspired the younger girl and she followed up with some eye-opening performances. Not the least of those was in reaching the US Open fourth round, where her clean ball-striking took out then world No. 8 Li Na and sent former champion Kim Clijsters into retirement.
Robson followed up her Flushing Meadows exploits at Guangzhou in late September by becoming the first Brit to reach a WTA final since Jo Durie at Newport in 1990.
But Watson then whipped out her trump card, acing her Australian-born friend and rival with a first British WTA title since 1988. Anyone remember who that was? Me neither, but Sara Gomer, now a 48-year-old housewife living in Bishop’s Stortford, emerged from her life of domesticity to congratulate Watson on sealing the Japan Open in Osaka.
When the musical chairs stopped, it was Watson who had the last laugh in the 2012 rankings—finishing at 49 to Robson’s 53.
So what can we expect in 2013 and which girl will ultimately climb the higher?
Of the two, Watson appears to have had the more linear development. In 2011, the Channel Islander made three quarter-finals, at Auckland, Memphis and Québec City. She followed up in 2012 with her Osaka triumph, two doubles titles and a number of solid third-round efforts, including Wimbledon.
Contrast that with Robson’s penchant for headline-generating, adrenaline-fuelled efforts. From winning her junior Wimbledon title in 2008 to the London Olympics of 2012, Robson’s development was almost uneventful, partly due to injuries. Indeed, she didn’t breach the top 100 until after Eastbourne in June last year. Admittedly, what came after was fairly special.
But it remains to be seen if that can be sustained, or how much of it was down to Robson’s medal-winning heroics with Murray.
Fearless and consistent
No less an authority than 18-time slam champion Chris Evert is in no doubt. On TheTennisSpace.com, she said:
In a couple of years, she (Robson) could be in the top five. What impressed me so much was that she was fearless and consistent. For three matches – against Clijsters, Li Na and then Stosur – she was playing top-10 tennis. We’ve seen a lot of young girls have one big win at a tournament and then fizzle out in the next round. That didn’t happen with Robson.
In terms of physique, Robson certainly has the edge on Watson. She was seemingly born to be a pro tennis player. Tall and rangy at 5'11" and a solidly built 148lbs, the Londoner hits a squeaky-clean backcourt ball and her beefy, lefty serve will cause no end of problems on the women’s tour. Where she struggles slightly is in lateral movement but, with plenty of shuttle-running under new coach Zeljko Krajan, she can address the problem.
Robson has attracted criticism in some quarters for her work ethic. When she made the Guangzhou final, British tennis commentator Annabel Croft told BBC Sport:
She was groomed as a star player from a young age and maybe didn't put the grind in at first, but she's gone back and done that and we're seeing the results. For a while, I thought she might not have it in her, but her movement is so much better now and she has this natural strike and timing.
On the face of it, Watson is a less likely top-10 candidate. At 5 feet 7 and 138 lbs, Watson has fewer headline weapons than Robson. Not that that’s necessarily an impediment—consider Agnieska Radwanska, who’s made the world’s top four without any obvious cannonballs. A smart, chippy game allied with strong defence never did Martina Hingis much harm, either.
What Watson does have in spades is a desire to learn and a genuine fighting mentality. She served for the Osaka final at 5-3 in the third set and saved four match points against Chang Kai-Chen before eventually closing it out at 7-5.
But then, Watson learned to guts it out alone a long time ago, moving to the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton at the age of just 12.
Despite this forging in the fires of Florida, question marks remain about Watson’s enjoyment of the WTA tour. Speaking to Britain’s The Telegraph, she admitted, “I don’t really fit in. I couldn’t be mean and not talk to people if I tried.”
This, she says, makes her feel lonely: “But I suppose I understand why some of the girls have to be that way. They believe that it allows them to focus. In their minds, they’re not playing a friend, they’re playing an opponent. That’s the job. It’s difficult, though.”
Watson certainly appears to have few friends on tour, limiting her social life to Robson and Marina Erakovic, her doubles partner.
However the rivalry pans out, the competition between the two girls will make for fascinating viewing in 2013 as they go head-to-head in the race to become Britain’s first top 10 WTA player since Jo Durie in the mid-1980s.
In truth, in a lacklustre WTA circuit in which the only big noises currently emanate from the mouths of Sharapova and Azarenka and in which Serena Williams continues to be gifted relatively easy majors, it’s a subplot that’s long overdue.
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