I'm still astonished at Laura Robson's recent progress, I have to say. She's completely jumped out of the compartment I had her in. It's still difficult for me to rationalise what she's become and why she's become it.
Everyone's been going on about her movement which, while not her strongest feature, I never thought was as weak as other people did. My problem with Laura was her immaturity and, more worryingly, a lack of fight. Both seem to have suddenly disappeared, particularly the lack of fight.
Why has this suddenly come? There was no sign of this fight before Palermo, when she went on a run to the semi-finals. Before then, when things got tough, she just relied on her hitting — which is exceptional, already in the top 15 or even 10 of the WTA Tour. But there was no gameplan, and no determination to get back into contention under pressure.
What we've seen at the US Open and last week was someone able to work things out, rationalise her game when things weren't going right, not getting too hard on herself and battling back from a losing position. We are seeing steel, and focus. She seems fitter, more confident, like she's enjoying herself and enjoying making her opponents work. She's on a roll, which is a huge boost in the women's game, where confidence and form can see a top 100 player morph into a top 30 player in almost no time.
So why has Laura moved on so quickly? A mainstream theory is that her run to the Olympic mixed doubles final with Andy Murray gave her a boost that has transformed her game. I do not agree with this as the change started before the Olympics, and certainly before the mixed doubles — she had already got to the second round in the singles, where she lost a tight match to Maria Sharapova having beaten Lucie Safarova in the first round. And prior to the Olympics she was very impressive in getting to the semis in Palermo — she beat Roberta Vinci, remember. So while the Olympic factor was certainly nice for her, she will have known full well that Murray was the 'leader' in that run, while it is clear to me the sea-change in her ability had changed before then.
I have a sneaky feeling that her new coach, Zeljko Krajan, may have something to do with this. He is a notoriously hard geezer, a task-master who focuses on weaknesses in a player's game and drills them into strengths. He came in just after Palermo, so Laura's change had already started, but he appears to be maintaining and improving her by the week. There's no danger of her head floating in the clouds with Krajan — so long as she sticks with him and doesn't get put off by the hard work.
The women's game is a much tighter affair in terms of who can beat who, and momentum is a big factor in turning a career around. If your confidence is high it doesn't matter who you're playing or what surface you're on, you will win matches.
She's already on the brink of the top 50 so I think that is a given now. As it stands you can see her beating anyone outside of the top eight on her day. When she plays her game well it's a one-horse race and will be against anyone who doesn't have her hitting ability. Even in losing the Guangzhou final, her best game was comfortably better than Hsieh's. For me Laura just ran out of steam in the end, having beaten all the higher-ranked players in tough, long matches. Outside the top 10 there are maybe five or six erratic big-hitters such as Kaia Kanepi and Nadia Petrova who will beat Laura on their day, but they are very inconsistent. As a result I see Laura as already a top 20 player in terms of ability and form.
You see this in female tennis quite a lot — suddenly something switches in the late teens or early 20s, they become more determined, tougher. It happens later nowadays because the younger teenagers aren't allowed on the tour, but I wasn't expecting this in Laura. We saw a real lack of hardness in her but, through a personal change and an impact of coaching, we're seeing a rush of determination and toughness, and one that appears to be here to stay.
Because I was so wrong about Laura, I don't want to discourage Heather Watson at all, but I think it will be harder for her to move up the rankings.
She was unfortunate to have to play Maria Sharapova in the second round at Tokyo, as it would have been nice to see her in a few more consecutive matches against higher-ranked opposition without having to come up against one of the real greats, to see if she's capable to maintaining a solid run.
I've always loved watching Heather play, her style is really beautiful, and she's always had the perfect mentality in terms of her determination, fight and cool-headedness under pressure — the opposite of how Laura used to be. However, unlike Laura, she is limited by her lack of size and power, which unfortunately is not something you can change. She will always come up short against a big hitter — for me she is close to her maximum, and any improvement in the future will be marginal gains and brought about by improved consistency and tactics. There is a precedent for the smaller girls improving in their 20s, as we've seen with Dominika Cibulkova and Sara Errani, but it's a lot tougher as there are physical attributes you simply can't change.
I have said that Heather's mentality and Laura's physique would make for the perfect player, and while Laura has been able to improve herself psychologically, it will be much more difficult to add five inches in height to Heather. That said, there is no reason why she can't be a top 50 player — she's not that far off already — although Laura should be targeting the top 20 at the very least.
Unfortunately for Laura, her recent boost has come perhaps a few months too late in one respect — it would have been great had she been seeded for the Australian Open, which would have ensured she avoids one of the big guns in the first round.
As it stands, she would have to win in Beijing, and make a run to the latter stages in the other tournaments she enters before Australia. It's a tough ask at this stage so, if we're going to see Laura threaten the top 20 by the end of January, we'll have to hope she avoids the likes of Sharapova or Serena in the first round at Melbourne Park. If that happens, I can see her making the third round minimum and possibly staying around into the latter stages again.
For Heather, I think a realistic goal is the third round, but again it's dependent on the draw. Whichever way you look at it, the future is suddenly a whole lot brighter for women's tennis in Britain, and with both girls among the youngest on the Tour, time is on their side too.
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