6 July 2008

It was much, much more than a tennis match. It was seeing the future made flesh. It was a wondrous Wimbledon welcome to the surprise new arrival in our national sporting family. Let’s hope we are a long time together. For after yesterday, Laura Robson has become our darling overnight.

She is gorgeous, with a lovely, open, bright and smiling face, and a tennis game to match. This week’s victories had seen the great and good pronounce Laura the real deal but once outed as Britain’s latest big new hope, only victory against the difficult-to-spell, let alone pronounce Noppawan Lertcheewakarn of Thailand was going to be good enough. It took three sets. There were a couple of moments of teenage strop as Laura lost the second set but she came through like the winner she is said to be. We could do with a lot more of this.

At only 14, she is already a poised young lady, having in the past year grown to 5ft 7in and upped her serve to well over 100 mph. She has a beautiful open backswing and hits flowing winners off either wing. Her opponent was a very different type of athlete – two years older maybe, shorter, chunkier and strangely double-fisted on either side.

Laura broke her in the second game and raced to 3-0. If she held her concentration you could see that she could outclass the best player to ever come out of the ancient city of Chiang Mai where the 300 Buddhist temples must seem a long way from the lawns of the All England Club. It was not entirely easy because the Thai girl was a scrapper in the rallies and our new darling still has quite a way to go. “She doesn’t move well enough yet,” one of the experts said. Maybe not, but she served out to close the set and set us all thinking about how we are going to accommodate her into our sporting consciousness.

There was a strange mood in the crowd – not quite like watching a proper match. It was a mixture of curiosity and anticipation. For what was in front of us was an image which was going to become familiar in the retina. Laura Robson poised at the baseline, the pigtail neat behind the white sun visor, the head bowed in concentration as the right hand bounced the ball before the service action. She is 14. There could be 10, crikey, maybe even 20 years of this.

Then not just our concentration wavered; Noppawan is a gutsy little fighter and she began to dig out the winners as Laura wilted. Nobody could call Noppawan a classical player, nor easily fail to guess her origins as she graced the court in something close to national costume. She sported a high-necked blouse with striped epaulettes, a black lace belt tied at the back, and a split skirt with gold lace trimming – and that’s not to mention a red and gold flower brooch in her hair. It didn’t look the coolest of outfits but Laura began to buckle and ended the set throwing her racket to the ground with a screech of schoolgirl anguish.

At the time there was a feeling of slight embarrassment that we should have so indulged ourselves with hope that we were now blaming a 14-year-old girl for not winning a final at the first time of asking. But in 1990, I remember watching a 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati getting to the fourth round in the main draw.

If Laura Robson really was what Billie Jean King and the rest of them had said in the morning papers, she needed to win this. The second point of the third set was a metronomic rally which finally saw the Thai girl weaken. Laura was on the roll again. Noppawan was broken. The mood changed from complaint to realisation. Here was a new princess. We wanted to hail her as our own.

We had been witnesses to history. A table draped in the Union Jack was brought on and Ann Jones came out to present the prizes. She is silver-haired now but still has those same big smiling teeth we remember winning The Championship in ’69. Laura came out to receive the trophy. She was ushered across to pose for the photographers and then to parade round the court for spectators to see her. She didn’t really know how to do it, clutching the cup like a 14-year-old does with a ‘just look at me’ smile at a prize-giving.

She will learn – and so, we hope, will we.

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