It is a long time since the tennis press descended on Shrewsbury for its low-profile women’s feeder tournament. Nor are there many 14-year-olds whom they would travel to watch lose a semi-final to an unknown Estonian. Yet such is the buzz around Laura Robson that when she competed in her first professional tournament in Britain last September (for a mere £1,500) the press pack was out in full.
In June she had become the first British female in 28 years to win a title at the All England Club – the Wimbledon girls’ championship. Her triumph was so popular and unpredicted that it all but eclipsed Andy Murray’s own bullish semi-final run in the men’s singles. Now this warm, well-mannered teenager has beaten women more than twice her age, she is becoming a genuine hope for British women’s tennis. For ten years, not a single home-grown player was ranked in the top 100 until 25-year-old Anne Keothavong broke through in May (she is currently ranked 60th). But, in a sport that rewards youth, it is Robson who offers an inspiration for young players and encouragement for women in the UK to take up tennis. She is visible proof that they can aspire to more than the usual first-round exit.
The youngest winner of Wimbledon girls’ since Martina Hingis in 1994, Robson has been praised by Billie Jean King as “the real deal”. At a time when the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) is just starting to place women’s tennis on an equal footing with men’s, she will also benefit from its new professionalism towards developing elite players, and from the £30m National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. “It’s definitely different from when I was growing up,” says Keothavong. “I was lucky to play three or four times a week, let alone four hours a day. I wasn’t playing half as much as Laura is.”
Melbourne-born Robson comes from a sporty family – her brother is a swimmer and her mum, Kathy, was a basketball pro. They moved to England when she was four (by happy coincidence, they live near Wimbledon) and Kathy noticed her daughter’s tennis talent by the age of five. Unlike Keothavong, Robson is home-schooled to allow more time for tennis.
A left-hander, Robson has already impressed the seniors she has encountered. Angelique Kerber, the German who beat Robson in her first Tour match, predicted she would reach the top 100 within a year: “She’s very aggressive and makes almost no mistakes.” Robson’s perky humour off the court – she cheekily said of Venus Williams that she would “take her down” – is matched by a fiery passion on it. Her Dutch coach, Martijn Bok, described her as “insane” the first time he saw her in a racket-throwing fit.
Robson will play only a handful of professional tournaments while developing her skills among the juniors; her next major event should be this month’s Australian Open. It is the right course, believes Judy Murray, mother of Andy and Jamie and now a performance manager for the LTA. “I see a great future for her.”
Emma John is deputy editor of Observer Sport Monthly