slump

The Kids are on Life Support? Robson Struggles Through Tennis Transition

If a match is played on a side court and no one is around to watch it, does the result matter?

British sensation Laura Robson would prefer they didn’t, but a sub-par American hard court season following the Australian Open has shown few signs of letting up as the Tour transitions to European red clay. Robson had been amassing a coterie of big match wins, most recently a gutsy (if aesthetically displeasing) win over Petra Kvitova in Melbourne. But the losses for the young Brit have begun to pile up in quickly, as she has failed to win two consecutive matches since January. Off the court, times have been equally trying for the teenager, who suffered the theft of her jewelry and, after an incident of cyber-bullying following a loss to Yulia Putintseva in Dubai, a brief deactivation of her twitter account.

The former Wimbledon girls’ champion may be one of the last true tennis prodigies; she won her home Slam at the age of 14, famously inviting Marat Safin to accompany her to the Champion’s Ball. Reaching two more junior finals after that, Robson was under a microscope for most of her junior development. Making the transition to the senior tour, Robson showed promise when she reached the Hopman Cup finals with compatriot Andy Murray in 2011 and won the silver medal in at the Olympic mixed doubles event last summer.

But it was her summer hard court swing last year that truly turned heads; not long after hiring the controversial Zeljko Krajan (former coach of Dinara Safina and Dominika Cibulkova), Robson made a splash at the US Open, ending Kim Clijsters’ singles career in emphatic fashion and following that up with a decisive win over an in-form Li Na. In the fall, she continued to impress with a run to the finals of Guangzhou and it seemed she was coming into her own as 2013 got underway with the aforementioned Kvitova victory.

From that steady progress, it would appear Robson has done a complete about-face, but what has caused this slump? Unlike rival Sloane Stephens, who endured an uncomfortable homecoming after her Australian Open heroics, Robson has been decidedly under the radar, starting (and swiftly ending) most tournaments away from the glare of a TV camera.

Though a tennis match has few literary properties, that stops a precious few of us from analyzing them as if they were texts (the day a win or a loss means nothing more than a strict binary is the day journalism dies). A cursory look at Robson’s results reveal a string of five three-set losses, four 6-1 final sets, and three losses from a set up. Robson’s apparent inability to close ostensibly winnable matches against players outside the top 30 is startling given both her talent and the matches that made her relevant.

An even closer look, this time at the stats of Robson’s losses, most recently a two-set defeat to Japan’s Ayumi Morita, shows an ever-increasing amount of double faults (she served 10 against Morita). Coach Krajan’s former students had their own histories of serving woes before hiring the Croatian former pro, but his habit of tweaking his charges’ serve motions to be more side-arm have often done more harm than good, Robson appearing the latest victim of “the yips.”

Now playing in Europe for the first time since asserting her presence among the Tour’s upper echelon, the roles between Stephens and Robson will reverse; playing away from home, the young American will have a chance to work out her shaken confidence on both a surface she prefers and those outer courts Robson has called home for much of the season. By contrast, Robson, who probably anticipated making more inroads on a faster surface, will be asked to play under increasing scrutiny leading up to Wimbledon, literally a stone’s throw from her actual home.

How either player copes with the change of scenery cannot yet be predicted, but at least for Robson, the troubling start to the clay season may mean it gets worse before it gets better.

Andy Murray’s Mum Wins Him Prizes – The Friday Five

By Maud Watson

No Coach, No Problem – It’s been mere weeks since the news broke that Murray was sacking Maclagan as his coach. The decision didn’t come as a surprise given the relative slump that he’s endured throughout the bulk of 2010. But what did come as a bit of a surprise is the recent resurgence in his game that has come right on the heels of going solo with just a few notes from mum (who does know a thing or two about the game). His most recent results have included a finals appearance in Los Angeles, and more importantly, successfully defending his crown at the Rogers Cup just last week. The young Scot produced some of the best play to come off his racquet in recent memory, taking that Masters 1000 title with wins over the red-hot Nalbandian, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer. It will be interesting to see how he fairs in Cincy, but there’s little doubt that in spite of the fact he’s without a coach, he’s perhaps never looked more ready to end the major title drought for Great Britain.

Swan Song? – Earlier this week, James Blake announced that following the conclusion of the US Open, he would be taking a break from the sport to assess where he is in his career. No one could really find this piece of news shocking based on how his 2010 season has unfolded, which includes a recent thumping by Denis Istomin in the first round of Cincinnati this week. Blake’s ultimate goal is to take off enough time to hopefully recuperate and be able to log in more practice hours in the future, but he has admitted that his patience is being tried, and his career may be over sooner than anticipated. Blake is a nice guy who deserves to go out on his own terms and on a high note, but if you’re in a position to attend the final Slam of the year, you might go see Blake while you still can. This could very well be his last appearance in the Big Apple.

Additions to the WTA DL – After reaching the finals of Cincinnati, Russian Maria Sharapova was forced to pull out of the event in Montreal with a foot injury. The injury was acquired in her finals loss to Kim Clijsters (though hats off to Kim for fending off match points to emerge with the title). No word yet on how this will impact her chances at the US Open. The same goes for Serb Ana Ivanovic, who is suffering from some strained ligaments around the ankle. It’s an unfortunate injury given that Ivanovic was finally starting to make a bit of headway as far as rebuilding her rankings and confidence, but it’s better than the fracture she initially thought she was had. She is still holding out hope of making an appearance this coming week, and hopefully both of these young starlets will be able to wow fans with their presence in New York in just under two weeks time.

Additions to the ATP DL – With just under two weeks to go until the final major of the year, John Isner and Denis Istomin find themselves in a fitness race to be ready to go in the Big Apple. Both men sustained foot injuries in their matches on Wednesday at the Cincy Masters 1000 event. The severity of the injuries is unknown, but Isner wasn’t taking any chances, pulling out of the doubles as well. Isner has put together a nice season and has a real opportunity to raise his ranking even more with a good showing at the Open. Istomin, for his part, is an up-and-comer to watch and might well have been ready for a breakout performance at the last major of the year. Fingers crossed that both men make a full recovery and end the Grand Slam season with a bang.

Out of the Running – Justine Henin is out for the season as a result of the injury she sustained when she fell at this year’s Wimbledon Championships. The Belgian stated that while things are progressing, she won’t even be able to start practicing again until October. This has to be a disappointment, especially when considering the way her season began, but she’s certainly struggled since reaching the finals of the Australian Open. Perhaps this break will give Henin a chance to regroup and wage a more successful, and consistent, campaign in 2011.