A Panoply of Transgressions

by: Peter Bodo | May 27, 2013

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PARIS—At what point in the personal history of a player might you be justified in throwing up your hands and exclaiming, “She just doesn’t get it!”? It’s an interesting question, and one that 19-year-old Laura Robson and her support squad need to contemplate before too much more time passes.

Today, Robson met 10th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki, who’s been losing blood for weeks now. She hasn’t won a match since way back in Charleston, before the tour moved on to Europe. (Somehow, the setbacks have mysteriously had little impact on her ranking, unless the WTA has awarded bonus points for her skill at garnering publicity). Wozniacki is a high-value, proven name, so you’d expect a gifted, hungry young player like Robson to pursue her vigorously, nose glued to that blood trail.

It didn’t work out that way on Court Suzanne Lenglen today, though, as Robson delivered a match with more peaks and valleys than the Hindu Kush, allowing Wozniacki to roll through her, 6-3, 6-2. At least my British colleagues in attendance have been adequately conditioned to this kind of thing.

There are masterpieces in tennis, and then there are masterpieces of ugly—and even single, particularly cringe-worthy games that can become representative of an entire match, or the shortcomings of a player.  We had one of those today, the first game of the second set.

Robson was the server, after just having lost the previous set. She reached 40-30 uneventfully, but made a forehand error on the next point. She then double-faulted to face a break point. Robson answered that with a handsome forehand winner. She responded to her second game point with a fine serve that allowed her to take control of the rally, but inexplicably broke her pattern and fed Wozniacki a rally ball to her superior, backhand side and moved forward. Wozniacki wasted no time drilling the gift cross-court; Robson stretched and framed a high volley.

We’re just getting started. But the short version is that after saving her hash again with an ace, Robson failed to capitalize on another excellent first serve, drilling a forehand into the net. She ultimately survived the game, but her blend of inconsistency and poor decision-making suggested that she was doomed. Robson would not hold serve again.

The end of this match was suggested long before that three-game run at the start of the second. Robson also had three break points in Wozniacki’s first two service games, but didn’t convert a one. The most egregious error was the last of those slip-ups—a random backhand miss that she committed in end a brief rally. Buoyed by that escape, Wozniacki held, and promptly broke Robson for 3-1. Need I say the break point was a Robson double fault?

It may console Robson’s fans to know that she wasn’t entirely clueless of what had befallen her. In the eighth game, with Wozniacki serving at 4-2, Robson’s defense was beaten by a Wozniacki backhand. The British youngster threw her hands in the air, glanced up at the gods, and audibly admonished herself: “You’re playing right into her hands!”

That was an accurate assessment and, unfortunately, a condition that Robson was unable to alleviate. Her catalog of transgressions included an erratic forehand, an ineffective and unsteady backhand, an unwillingness to attack (despite the fact that Robson is one of those rare left-handers whose game is built to exploit that advantage), a serve that was both lethal and unreliable—especially on big points—and, last but not least, the lack of a drop shot. It’s a pity, because it’s a useful tool for a player who likes to take the ball on the rise—like Robson—when she meets an opponent who likes to camp at or behind the baseline—like Wozniacki.

At 22, Wozniacki isn’t that much older than Robson. Yet her game is much tighter, and she sticks to what strategy and tactics she’s mastered. It may be a slender portfolio, but that can sometimes help. So I asked her afterward if a player can “learn” to be a smart decision-maker and a good strategist, or if it was an innate talent. Why, in short, was she so much better at managing the match?

“I know where I stand,” Wozniacki said. “I know how I play my best. You know, sometimes it’s not as easy to execute as it is in your head. In your head you know exactly what to do, but it’s not always easy to do it. She’s only 19. She’s so young. I know I’m only 22, but still, you know, it’s still three years older. I think it means a lot.”

Wozniacki went on to note how “older and older” players are now winning the big events, and therefore experience must count for something. She said, “When you’re younger, you have no respect for anybody. You just go out there and you just play and you enjoy it. You know what you can do and what you can’t, and you just take advantage of the things you do, what you can do. . .There is not really a limit for anybody. I think it’s more in the head.”

Robson is a good example of the ambitious young player who doesn’t appear to have that mysterious, born knack for winning. It helps explain her reputation as a giant-slayer, more capable of rattling the scoreboard with a big upset than grinding out a volume of victories. And in all fairness to Robson, she inherited a lot of extra pressure when fellow Brit Andy Murray pulled out of the tournament due to injury.

When the gap left by the U.S. Open champion’s withdrawal was brought up, Robson smiled grimly and deadpanned, “Really, I hadn’t noticed. . .”

Her own analysis was of the match wasn’t particularly revealing. She acknowledged her mistake in letting those early break opportunities slip away, and suggested—a little simplistically, I thought—that she “just made too many mistakes.” Well, of course.

But Robson also said, “She’s always tough person to play. I think Caroline played really well and smart. She definitely knew what she wanted to do on court, and I just generally wasn’t able to get into the match.”

I’d amend that to read that Robson was able to get into the match but not to find her way through it, and get out with a win. It’s a common problem with young players, even very good ones like Robson.

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