Laura Robson confirms status as most thrilling talent in women's game
If there were any remaining doubts about Laura Robson's status as the most exciting young talent in women's tennis they evaporated into the hot night air here at the Australian Open yesterday.
A stunning 2-6, 6-3, 11-9 victory over Petra Kvitova, the 2011 Wimbledon champion and world No 8, sent the 18-year-old Briton into the third round of the year's opening Grand Slam event. More importantly, it confirmed that she now needs to fear nobody in the women's game.
It was a remarkable match, littered with errors but also full of thunderous shots by two of the sport's biggest hitters. Robson recovered from 3-0 and 4-2 down in a see-saw third set, failed to serve out for the match when she led 6-5, but completed her victory in convincing fashion after breaking the 22-year-old Czech for the last time.
The three-hour contest, played in the main Rod Laver Arena in front of a crowd who were overwhelmingly behind the Melbourne-born Robson, finished at 12.30 in the morning. On a day when the temperature peaked at 40C, it was still in the thirties by the time Kvitova failed to return Robson's final serve of the match.
"I never gave up," an exhausted Robson said afterwards. "Even when she went up a break twice in the third, I just thought: 'I can always break her serve, I just have to get as many returns in as I can.' And in the end, I just thought: 'I've got nothing to lose, so I'm just going to relax on my serve a bit more and just go for it'."
Kvitova, who has had a poor start to the year, said: "I don't think I've ever served so badly. I was up and down the whole match. Laura surprised me with her serve. It took me a while to get used to it because she's a left-hander. She tried to play very fast, the same way that I do. Our games are quite similar."
Robson has to win one more match here to emulate her performance at last year's US Open, when she beat two Grand Slam champions in Kim Clijsters and Li Na to reach the fourth round, but she rated this as her hardest-fought victory.
"I would say all the wins are equally satisfying, but this one was probably the toughest in terms of how long the match was and how up and down it was," she said. "I feel I was playing better in New York. I thought today was pretty ugly, but in terms of how tough it was to close it out in the end, I think it's right up there with one of the best wins."
Her reward is a place in the third round against Sloane Stephens, which promises to be a fascinating confrontation between two of the game's most exciting young talents. Stephens, who is just 10 months older than Robson, is one of a group of emerging young American players. The world No 25, who has been taken under Serena Williams' wing, beat Robson in straight sets in their only meeting at senior level in Hobart last week.
Robson's victory means that two British women have reached the third round of a Grand Slam event for the first time since the 1991 US Open. Heather Watson was due to play Agnieszka Radwanska in the opening match of today's programme. The performances of the two Britons here should see both of them climb at least 10 places in the world rankings. Watson is currently No 50 and Robson No 53.
With Andy Murray also securing his place in the last 32 with a convincing victory over Portugal's Joao Sousa, Britain's tally of three players in the third round of singles competition here is bettered by only five other countries.
Next up? Sloane Stephens, an American idol in the making
Sloane Stephens, Laura Robson's opponent in the third round of the Australian Open tomorrow, grew up with posters of Serena Williams on her bedroom wall. In future it could be the 15-times Grand Slam champion who has Stephens as her idol.
"I watch her a lot because I'm actually a Sloane Stephens fan," Williams said. "She's a good player, serves well, runs really well, and she doesn't miss."
Although only 5ft 7in tall, Stephens is a fine athlete and excellent all-round player. Last year the American reached two semi-finals on the main women's tour and performed consistently in Grand Slam tournaments, reaching the fourth round at the French Open and the third round at both Wimbledon and the US Open. At 19 she is already up to No 25 in the world rankings.
Americans see her as the natural successor to the Williams sisters, and Serena in particular has given her regular support and advice.
When Stephens is not training alongside Serena in Los Angeles or competing in tournaments, she returns home to Coral Springs, Florida, where she lives with her mother, who was a champion college swimmer. Her natural father, a former American footballer, died three years ago in a car accident, while her stepfather, who inspired her to start playing tennis when she was nine, died of cancer some years earlier.
Robson and Stephens know each other from their junior days. "I wouldn't say it's a rivalry but we are the same age so I guess it is," Stephens said. "It's not like Nadal and Federer – but it could be."
Brits at the double: Best recent Slam
Laura Robson's victory, following Heather Watson's win the previous day, gave Great Britain two women in the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time since 1991.
That year's US Open saw both Jo Durie and Sara Gomer reach the last 32 at Flushing Meadows, with Durie going on to reach the fourth round. Gomer exited to eventual champion Monica Seles, while Durie overcame 15th seed Helena Sukova before going out in the last 16 to home favourite Jennifer Capriati.