If the teenage Briton, who turns 19 during the tournament, could win her first match, she would certainly have a crack at a Grand Slam champion—either the 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova or the 2010 French Open winner Francesca Schiavone. And the later, since her career-high No4 ranking of 2011, was now down to 48—just a couple of places above Robson’s new career-high.
The reason the draw had such a thrilling look was the memories it evoked of Robson’s last Major, the US Open, where she overcame first Kim Clijsters and then Na Li—Grand Slam winners both—to advance to the fourth round.
Despite her age and inexperience on the senior tour, Robson thrives on the big stage, and the Rod Laver arena in Melbourne—where Robson was born—is both big and vociferous in its support of their adopted daughter.
In the event, the opponent proved to be Kvitova, a semi-finalist here last year and with a game not unlike Robson’s. It was an intriguing match-up, not least because Robson professed dislike playing left-handers like herself: “I always against lefties. Trying to return her serve at the start was really hard.”
By the time they took to court, it was 8:30 in the evening but still a debilitating 34C. Robson looked cool enough, sharp and elegant in a pristine white, crisply pleated outfit, so perhaps it was the unusual conditions that gave her the worst possible start, and not because of the Kvitova serve.
Robson lost four straight points on her own serve to concede an immediate break—but the Kvitova serve came to her aid as the Czech lost her opening game, too.
Both certainly took a while to find a rhythm: Both are tall women who play a big left-handed game, use powerful swinging serves, and make no bones about going for their shots. Most rallies were quickly determined by outright winners or unforced errors, and Kvitova had the slight advantage on both counts: 14 winners to 12 errors.
She broke Robson again in the seventh game and, despite some loose serving—including four double faults—and facing six break points, she served out the set after more than 10 minutes of trying, 6-2.
Still there was little rhythm and flow to the tennis. Robson held her opening game, but could not take advantage of more wayward serving from Kvitova that yielded two break points. The Czech levelled at 1-1, and Robson gave up a 40-0 lead in the third, finally holding through two deuces.
The pressure translated into low first-serve percentages through the whole set —41 for Robson, 53 for Kvitova—and both still hit many more errors than winners, in Robson’s case, 13 to just four.
Game after game went to deuce. Robson earned two more break points in the fourth and another error from Kvitova finally conceded the valuable break. Robson consolidated—via deuce, of course—to lead 3-1. Not content with that, she struck a couple of screaming forehand returns of serve to break again.
But tension descended once more in this see-sawing tussle. Double faults alternated with winning serves and Kvitova broke back, and then held in her cleanest game of the match. With the pressure now on Robson, she too came up with a tough game to serve out, 6-3.
It would come down to the third, and what a third it was—the whole of the match encapsulated in one long, unpredictable set.
Kvitova served first, which would become a lifeline for the Czech an hour later. She held the opening game, through deuce, and then attacked the Robson serve with a change of tactics, rushing the net and forcing the break.
For a brief phase, Kvitova looked a new player, and held serve to love to lead 3-0, but Robson halted the flow with a hold in fourth and the Kvitova range of the opening games evaporated into the night sky. Three double faults, some great returns by Robson on the rest, and it was another break—then a break back.
And so it continued. After exactly two hours, Robson broke to love, and made a rare hold to level at 4-4. Sensing danger, Kvitova survived three deuces and also held, squealing with determination at almost every winner.
From now on, any slip, any broken serve, could cost the match. Kvitova looked close to tears as she served to hold the 11th game, but Robson broke. Only an immediate break back would save the match—that lifeline of serving first—and Kvitova did.
It was midnight, it was 6-6, and it would take eight more games in a 94-minute set for this gut-twisting match to resolve. Eventually the chance would come from the Robson forehand, a sizzling return of serve down the line to break for a 10-9 lead. This time, Robson would not falter, she found four first serves, and the coolest woman in the arena had downed yet another Grand Slam champion, 11-9.
Robson next plays the only other teenager in the top 50, Sloane Stephens, who made the cut for the seedings after a quarter-final run in Brisbane and subsequently reached the semis in Hobart—beating Robson in the first round—to climb to a new high ranking of 25.
The young American has made swift and straightforward progress through to the third round, but then she hasn’t faced a seed, let alone a Grand Slam champion. Robson will rightly expect to avenge her Hobart loss—especially with the Aussie crowds behind her. Should she do so, she would face an unseeded player in the fourth round, either Kimiko Date-Krumm or Bojana Jovanovski. Success would mean significant new ground: a Grand Slam quarter-final—and against—probably—one of the greatest of them all, Serena Williams.
Before that, however, fellow top-50 Brit, Heather Watson, will have her moment in the sun, opening on the Hisense Arena against world No4, Agnieszka Radwanska. Should she win that, she faces the prospect of two consecutive Grand Slam champions in Ana Ivanovic and Na Li.
Things don’t get any easier—but both women are breaking new ground all the time. By the time they reach the last Grand Slam of the year, perhaps they too will have become seeds.
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BIOGRAPHY: Marcus Rashford