THE EARLY DAYS OF A MATCH WINNER

13 July 2008

As the nation’s new sporting sensation practises away from the limelight this week, this paper is unashamedly happy to claim that it was already on to the Laura Robson story five years ago.

These pictures of Laura playing at the Sunday Telegraph Juniors at Nottingham in 2003 will soon become a treasured part of an ever-growing archive. Last week’s junior Wimbledon champion was more than six inches shorter then but already had a left-handed game and a match-winning mind which suggested that this might be the early days of a much longer journey. Next stop now may be the American juniors in September.

Last Saturday’s success put those suggestions on every front page and brought with them all the booby traps of premature fame. A nation ever frustrated at Wimbledon and still learning to love Andy Murray after Tim Henman, was suddenly handed a perfectly packaged champion like sunshine from a cloudy sky. Never mind that it was only the junior event, this was front page and we could not get enough of it – exactly what you wouldn’t want for a 14-year-old trying to climb upwards to where the real heroes are.

Good news, therefore, to hear that the Robson team have moved swiftly to distance her from the slavvering chops of media representatives who could not believe our luck. Here was this smiling, sassy girl, who even the serious experts said was the real deal and whose charm made even the hardest-hearted old hack lie on his back to have his tummy tickled. You can’t blame us. We just could not get enough of her. How splendid that we can’t.

That’s the intention anyway. “We are taking Laura right out of circulation,” said Aby Torduff, her agent from Octogon. “She is practising in Holland this week and will then play a couple of minor tournaments but we want to give her the chance to get on with both her life and her game. Originally she was not set to go to anything major before the Australian juniors in January but it now looks as if she might go to the American Open at Flushing Meadow in September.”

This should to some extent answer the “her management will ruin her” gibe that was the immediate reaction on Radio Five’s Sportsweek programme last Sunday morning from Pat Cash, himself not only the men’s singles champion of 1987 but the junior champion at both Wimbledon and the US Open in 1982. Cash’s point was that the temptation to sign up with immediate lucrative sponsorship deals involving public appearances and promotion would prove too strong to resist. The signs not just from the management but, and more importantly, from the family, are that resistance is the rule.

In June 1990 I watched another 14-year-old play – not in the juniors, but in the fourth round of the main draw against Steffi Graf. Within four years Jennifer Capriati was a drop-out on a drugs charge and it was 11 years before she climbed back to become World No 1. Laura is very different from the young, buck-toothed Capriati who hit the ball so hard and answered questions so soft that I wrote a piece starting: “Spring flowers are the sweetest, but they never last till summertime.” Robson, and those around her, must remember that it is summer they have to reach.

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