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Where do Laura Robson and Heather Watson go from here?

Photo: tennis.si.com
Photo: tennis.si.com

With both Laura Robson and Heather Watson dropping out of the Australian Open in the first round, Online Editor Matt Bugler takes stock of the careers of Britain’s two pre-eminent female tennis players.

Having built her game around success in the big events, it was surprising and disappointing to see Laura Robson fade out of the Australian Open first round on Monday. Having reached the third round last year, which included an epic three hour win over Petra Kvitova, she could find no such battle in her 50 minutes on court with Kirsten Flipkens, becoming the first player to be knocked out the event.

The rankings would suggest that 18th seed Flipkens should be comfortably beating the 48th ranked Robson, but the Brit has made such a habit of overcoming higher ranked players in the Slams that she was almost equal favourite in the national optimist’s eyes. Robson’s run to the Wimbledon fourth round last year had people talking about her winning the event in the future, and it was certainly a nice change to have another home prospect accompanying Andy Murray in the second week.

However, since then she has won just six matches on tour and is starting to slide down the rankings. Although she didn’t play her best tennis at the US Open last year, her good form in the summer meant she was seeded for the first time, and she capitalised on that opportunity by beating some lower-ranked players en route to the third round. Having failed to back up these results in recent months, she was always vulnerable to a tough draw in Melbourne, and the Wimbledon semi-finalist Flipkens was no slouch.

It was not the result that disappointed but the manner of the loss; 32 unforced errors in 50 minutes is a dreadful statistic, and losing the last eight games is not much better. She has always been hit and miss in the winners to unforced errors ratio, but with a scoreline as one-sided as 6-3 6-0, perhaps she needs to find a Plan B to simply hitting the ball as hard as she can. When she’s playing well she strikes the ball as well as anyone on tour, but when she’s a bit off her sluggish movement and difficulty at dealing with slice and variety is all too evident.

Eugenie Bouchard in action. Photo: thestar.com
Eugenie Bouchard in action. Photo: thestar.com

Robson may have failed to complete a match this season after being hampered by a wrist problem, but if she says it isn’t an issue then you wonder what is. It is discouraging to see players picking up injuries before the season has really started, and questions must be asked about her off-season training schedule. She recently teamed up with Nick Saviano, but the American can’t commit to being a full time coach as he focuses on Robson’s friend and rival Eugenie Bouchard.

Bouchard’s success has been slow and steady compared to the rollercoaster of Robson’s junior Wimbledon triumph at 14 and subsequent highs and lows. However, it is the Canadian who goes into round two at Australia having won her first match as 30th seed. It seems that Robson is playing second fiddle at the moment to Bouchard, as she is only being part-time coached by Saviano, and is encountering a difficult time in her career as her ranking fluctuates. Bouchard’s ranking is gradually increasing, but Robson’s may go down some more before she cracks the top twenty.

Heather Watson may have plummeted down the rankings in the last year, but she seems to be putting her glandular fever-disrupted 2013 quickly behind her. It is better for her confidence to be winning three rounds of qualifying in Australia rather than gaining direct entry whilst low on confidence, and her close encounter with the skilful veteran Daniela Hantuchova showed signs of promise.

Watson may not be as naturally talented as Robson, but her determination to put up a fight is second to none. If she is to make a success of her career, it will be in the vein of a Marion Bartoli or Jelena Jankovic, players who maximise their potential against physically and technically superior opponents. The key for Watson this season is to play as many matches as possible, possibly add to her sole tournament win in the 2012 Japan Open, and work her way back into the top fifty. She hits a good ball and must believe she can be competitive with the best players.

It is essential for both players to pick up wins in the next couple of months, before the season turns to clay. Their early exits will give them time to practise more on hard courts, and perhaps adjust their schedules to play an extra event. Moreover, as they team up in the Fed Cup to represent Great Britain next month they will perhaps take stock of how far they have to go in their respective careers.

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