by Pete Bodo
New York - Greetings, everyone. Hey, you're all famous. A friend of mine, humor writer Ralph Gardner, wrote a column in his Urban Gardner space at the Wall Street Journal, based on half-a-day he spent with me out here at the National Tennis Center. We talk a little bit about TW there, for those of you who care.
Also, I have a cute story to share before we get down to focusing on the women's semifinals. Talented tennis photographer David Kenas is a former junior tennis player who still hits and teaches occasionally. A few weeks ago, we were on assignment together. In the car, he told me about the trials and tribulations of one Robin Anderson, a youngster he's helped develop and with whom he often hit. They met because Kenas's mother, a realtor, sold the girl's family their house in Matawan, N.J. The Kenas's live nearby and have a tennis court, and when David learned that the Andersons had kids who were interested in tennis, he reached out to them and it resulted in a nice, low-key relationship.
Robin, a 16-year old, came along nicely - well enough to catch the eye of junior development specialists. She bounced around in the development system and recently landed in the Champion's Center in Maryland. The pros there told her that if she had any hope of playing at the pro level, she had to make some changes to her backhand, particularly on the grip she used on her effective if not entirely au courant slice backhand. As a result of the tinkering, her backhand fell apart. She couldn't keep a ball in the court this summer. This was the tale of woe told to me by David.
You hear these kinds of stories all the time. All kinds of things can happen to derail a promising player, and never underestimate the confusion that a little talent can create. To whom do you listen? Which offer of help is best? Change the backhand grip, or say, "Thanks, but this is the only comfortable one for me and I think I can win with it." The number of careers-shaping decisions that a player - particularly if he or she isn't conspicuously a once-in-a-generation talent - must make while moving up on the ladder of success is formidable. It's very different from what a musical prodigy might have to undergo.
Anyway, yesterday morning David strolled over to my work station. He said, "Remember that Robin girl I told you about in the car? She's on Court 13 in a little while, playing Laura Robson."
"You mean the one with no backhand?"
"That one. I talked to her this morning. Told her to just go out there and take the game to Robson. Play aggressive. Don't worry about anything, just go for your shots and try to have a god time."
I laughed, and boldly promised. "Tell you what, David. If your girl beats Robson, I'll write about her."
You all know Laura Robson. She's the great British hope, a prodigy who's already a tabloid star in the UK, and seems to the manor born when it comes to the pro game. She was seeded no. 8, a relatively low position. But in all fairness to her, were it not for the age restrictions now in place, Robson probably would not even be in the junior event. But she needs match-play, wherever she can get it. Still - Robson name alone is good for a few games per set, and even though Anderson had already upset a seeded player in the first round, it seemed she had her work cut out.
A short while later, my cell phone rang. It was David. "Hey. Robin just won the first set. Thought you'd want to know."
As if I didn't already have enough to do. I finished up a Crisis Center post, or whatever the hail I was doing, and ran out to find Anderson ahead 5-1 in the second. So I only caught a brief snapshot of her game. I was impressed. She moves well, and has a nice knack for mixing her excellent, slice backhand with her powerful forehand. And this girl can serve.
The win caught the eye of less vested parties as well, so the USTA brought Robin to the interview room after the big upset. David also slipped in, behind her. He was grinning from ear to ear. I asked if she had been nervous playing against Robson (the scoreline sure didn't suggest it). "I was nervous, but more about playing than about who I was playing."
Robin is a quiet, shy girl, although there's something pleasantly crafty about her smile, and about her attitude as well. She's flying under the radar, and deservedly so, but that's just fine with her. "I like it, being here and people not knowing who I am," she said. Robin's dad was at the match as well; she told me she was the guy Mets cap. "He doesn't really like the Mets, though." she confided.
Like daughter, like father, right? Fly under ther radar.
A few months ago, just prior to the Tennis Night in America festivities, a USTA official called Robin and asked if she wanted to hit with Venus Williams, who was playing in that TNA exhibition in Madison Square Garden. She eagerly said yes, but the meeting never happened. "I think she found someone else to hit with," Robin said.
"Do you plan to make her pay for that?" I asked.
She produced a Cheshire cat smile and answered, "Maybe. . ."
Robin has the potential to get onto the radar, if not just yet. She appears to be committed to that slice backhand, naysayers be danged. It will certainly allow her to stand out in the WTA crowd, and present her future rivals with a different look. I like her set of skills - Steffi Graf will tell you that life can be pretty good even if you hit only slice off the backhand wing, and especially so if you're quick, have a big forehand, and a good serve.
And if that doesn't work out, she can always become a tennis photographer. I know just the guy to give her lessons.
PS - Robin lost this morning to the top seed in the Girls event, four-and-four. Good effort.