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Wimbledon: Robson can learn from class of true champion

It was the tallest of tall orders for 17-year-old Laura Robson to eliminate the 6ft 2in former champion Maria Sharapova on a sun-bathed Court One yesterday, and nor did she.

But after precisely an hour of an engrossing first set the pair were locked at six games apiece, and even by the time the match finished, with a 7-6 6-3 victory and a place in the third round for the Russian, the future of British women’s tennis looked just a little rosier than it had an hour earlier.

“I think she has great potential,” said Sharapova afterwards. “She’s got to keep learning and keep playing and keep working hard.”

It was wise advice from the old sage of 24, but it should swiftly be added that Sharapova was two months younger than Robson is now when she won the Wimbledon singles title in 2004.

With that kind of prodigy in mind, it might be termed wishful thinking to place Robson, and 19-year-old Heather Watson, a first-round casualty, at the vanguard of a potential British renaissance in the women’s game.

But there was more than a little evidence yesterday to suggest that the youngster, an unexpected junior champion here in 2008, has the weapons to go a good deal further in a Grand Slam. In particular it was a deep, accurate serve, and a searching, powerful forehand, that for much of the first set forced Sharapova onto the defensive.

Robson had already made her mark on Wimbledon by the time she emerged into the sunshine on Court One yesterday. In 2009, aged 15, she became the youngest player in the main women’s draw since Martina Hingis in 1995, and in her debut match sensationally took the first set off Daniela Hantuchova, a player 456 places above her in the world rankings.

Here, with a mere 248 places between her and her sixth-ranked opponent, there were early signs that she might again upset the odds.

By saving five break points in an opening game lasting eight minutes, Robson certainly showed that she has the mental toughness to prosper on the big stage, and then promptly broke the Sharapova serve to lead 2-0.

In truth, the fifth seed was playing some way below her considerable best, serving poorly, misfiring from the baseline and shrieking louder than ever.

But that is to take nothing away from the left-handed teenager, who plays with real attacking verve, going for winners even when defence looks like the more sensible option.

She seems unfettered either by her own expectations, or anybody else’s. And to the voluble delight of the Court One crowd she also made the more astute Hawk-eye challenges, successfully querying a line call in the third game to help her to a 3-0 lead, then holding once more to get to 4-1.

For Sharapova, it must have seemed like deja-vu all over again.

At the same stage of the French Open she played 17-year-old Caroline Garcia, of France, and found herself a set and 1-4 down (at which point Andy Murray tweeted that Garcia was a future world No1) before mustering a win.

She broke the hearts of the Roland Garros crowd that day as she did their Wimbledon counterparts here; once a 17-year-old sensation herself, she is making a speciality act of taking on the uppity teenagers in front of their own people, and eventually putting them in their place.

Robson, in truth, was born in Melbourne to Australian parents, but she moved to England when she was six and considers herself British to her fingertips, hence the Union Jack fingernails.

Once Sharapova had broken back in that first set, it looked as if she might begin to assert her superiority, but the next five games went with serve to force a tie-break, which Robson led 4-2 only for her opponent to win the next five points to close out the set.

Sharapova raced to a 2-0 in the second set, but again Robson showed her mettle, breaking back, only then to be broken to love herself.

Sharapova was finding her rhythm and dealing much better with the Robson serve, which, though not yet a thing of power, finds all the right angles. Some of her second serves were scarcely fast enough, yet confounded Sharapova.

Belfast Telegraph