Laura Robson fell in straight sets on Sunday, but still had a career week at the U.S. Open. (JASON SZENES FOR SI)
Laura Robson's giant-killing run at the U.S. Open ended Sunday with a 6-4, 6-4 loss to defending champion Samantha Stosur in the fourth round. It was a disappointing defeat for the Brit, who had her chances against Stosur (at one point she was 1-for-7 in break point conversions), but it capped what was a career week for Robson, one that seemed to vindicate all the pressure and expectation she's been carrying for more than four years.
If it feels as though we've had our eyes on Robson for years now, it's because we have. That's what happens when you carry a British passport and do anything of note at Wimbledon. Competing in her first junior Grand Slam tournament in 2008, the 14-year-old Robson beat some recognizable names like Melanie Oudin and Bojana Jovanovski on her way to winning the girls' title at the All England Club. The talent was promising alone. She was a 5-foot 7 lefty who had impeccable timing around the ball, clocking it with tremendous pace for her age. Combined with her ability to hold her nerve to win a title at her home Slam, it made you sit up and take notice. As our good luck would have it, she was absolute charmer off-court as well, flashing her dimpled smile as her mischievous and precocious wit took over press conferences. When it came to building a WTA superstar, Laura Robson was the complete package. All she had to do was win matches.
The problem is times have changed. Gone are the days of teenage phenoms like Martina Hingis, Tracy Austin or Jennifer Capriati. Age is very much a number on the WTA and being under 18 meant that Robson, who turned pro in 2008, was restricted in how many professional tournaments she could play. It also meant a four-inch growth spurt that led to a rash of injuries that stunted her ability to play and train. Her body wasn't mature enough to handle the physical rigors of the pro tour and her results bore that out. Pundits picked at her movement and called her slow-footed -- and, in fairness, they were right.
Robson had shown some positive signs of progress recently -- she made her first WTA semifinal in the spring, pushed Maria Sharapova at the Olympics and hired a new coach in the notoriously intense Zelko Krajan -- but in truth, no one saw a run this deep at the U.S. Open coming. In edging Kim Clijsters 7-6 (4), 7-6 (5) in the second round, Robson came back from 2-5 down in the first set. In knocking off Li Na in the third round, she rebounded from losing a tight second set to run away with the third, winning 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2. And even in her loss to Stosur, the teenager saved eight match points before finally succumbing. Finally healthy and able to work on her fitness in earnest, we got a glimpse of what Robson is actually capable of.
"Oh, it's been massive," Robson said when asked about her body finally feeling healthy. "It just makes so much of a difference mentally.
"I think the level has always been there. So just in the last few matches I think it's noticeable that instead of just trying to hit a winner off a tough shot like I have done in the past, I'm just trying to make a percentage shot back; that makes all the difference really."
Unfortunately that patience, which propelled her to the wins over Clijsters and Li, was absent against Stosur on Sunday. Robson racked up 41 unforced errors against the Aussie, going for too much too early in the rallies and giving away far too many easy points. It's a difficult balance for the teenager to strike, as she tries to find a way to play an aggressive but patient game. Stosur's unique brand of powerful spin kept the young Brit off balance and she struggled under the pressure.
"A few times today I just tried to go for it a little bit too early in the rally where I really could have just kept hitting it to her backhand just one or two times more and waited for a better opportunity in the rally," Robson said, clearly disappointed with the loss. "But it was difficult because she was going around her forehand a lot and really opening up the court with her spinny groundstrokes, so it was tough."
The physicality and tactics go hand-in-hand. When Robson was still struggling to grow into her 5-11 frame, she couldn't trust her ability to hang in the rallies, choosing to go for outright winners when out of position rather than grind herself back into the point. Now it seems she's beginning to trust her ability to dig out of the corners. Her U.S. Open run will push her ranking to the mid-70s and with little to defend in the fall, it'll only go up. She'll carry that confidence into the Asian swing, where she's planning to play in Guangzhou, Tokyo, Beijing and Osaka.
In the meantime, she'll have to get used to her growing fame.
"This morning actually there was like a camera crew outside my hotel, which was a little bit freaky," she said. "I got really excited because I thought they were waiting for someone who was actually famous."
But just like her game, there's still work to do. British soccer star Wayne Rooney called her "Laura Robinson." The New York Times called her "Linda" Robson on Twitter. Even the very tournament at which she's made her splash this week couldn't get it right, calling her "Sarah" Robson. So despite the cameras and the hype, Robson may not be a household name yet. But as she's learned since she was 14, when she won that junior Wimbledon title as an unseeded player, everything is a process.