Every player ought to have at least one day in her lifetime like the one 19-year-old Laura Robson had at Wimbledon today. She found herself in the zone while matched with No. 10 seed Maria Kirilenko and playing in her beloved native championships on the iconic No. 1 Court.
Not only did Robson win, 6-3, 6-4, she also survived a serious mental and emotional test that will prevent most people from dismissing her feat as “just one of those things.” For at 1-4 down, with Robson serving in the second set, Kirilenko made a strong push and, as the teenager’s temporary confidence and focus melted away, it looked as if the Russian might turn the day into another of those all too frequent British Wimbledon disasters.
Give Robson plenty of credit for pulling it together and averting that painful national experience.
It was clear from the outset that Robson was not at all intimidated by her opponent or by the occasion. It’s easy to understand the former reflex; Kirilenko can be a wonderful player to watch, her versatility is nonpareil. But she lacks both power and basic physical strength, and must survive by her wits. By contrast, Robson is a sturdily built, 5’10” southpaw with a power serve and heavy groundstrokes, including a lethal forehand.
This was clearly doing to be a match of finesse against power, but the wild card factor was the pressure Robson might feel at Wimbledon, where hopes for British players are always so high, but success among the women pros so rare. Robson, ranked No. 38, managed to shut out all those larger issues and played with a calm, firm hand from the start.
The first set rolled out on serve, with Kirilenko experiencing the only early glitch. But she survived a long service game to hold for 2-all, and then was more or less calm until the eighth game. In that game, Robson hit a down-the-line service-return winner and an inside-out forehand to reach break point. She converted for 5-3 with yet another service-return winner, and calmly served out the first set.
It was a commanding set, with Robson playing the hungry wolf to Kirilenko’s rabbit. Kirilenko managed to win just a third of the points when she was impelled to hit a second serve, which was quite often.
Robson kept the pressure on through the start of the second set. Her down-the-line forehand was particularly effective, as was her service placement. She kept Kirilenko off balance and back on her heels. When Kirilenko, down break point at 1-all in the second set, chipped a neutral backhand back at Robson, the British lass took a lusty swing and drove the backhand down the line for the break, 2-1.
When Robson consolidated that break with a strong hold culminating with an ace wide for 3-1, the crowd erupted joyfully. In the next game, Robson hammered her way to a 40-love lead against Kirilenko’s serve when she hit her 21st winner of the match—compared to just eight unforced errors—and then what we might call the “Brit Factor” kicked in.
Robson wasted all three break points with nerve-induced errors; when Kirilenko won the third one she allowed a sneaky, knowing smile to trace cross her lips. But Robson went on to break her anyway, striking an unreturnable service return and yet another down-the-line service return winner.
Despite her two-break lead, the Brit Factor wouldn’t go away. Although Robson led 40-15 in the next game, it began to slip out of her grasp. Kirilenko reached her first break point of the match after the first deuce, but failed to convert. But a pair of forehand errors by Robson then allowed Kirilenko to narrow the lead to one break, 4-2.
Kirilenko held the next game, with Robson looking increasingly shaky as the points rolled by. Serving at 3-4, Robson started with a double fault that triggered a collective groan from the crowd, but followed with an ace. She built another 40-15 lead, and this time didn’t allow it to crumble. Kirilenko won one point, after which Robson smacked a gorgeous forehand down-the-line winner off a cross-court backhand service return to secure the game for 5-3. It was like reaching safe haven.
Kirilenko managed a hold, and that left Robson with just one more hurdle to surmount. After Kirilenko fired a winner to win the first point, Robson hit bold shots to go up 40-15. This time, she slammed the door shut at the first opportunity, winning the match on a cross-court forehand winner.
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