Laura Robson: The Long Road Back Starts Here

It is Monday February 11th, 2019.

Laura Robson is 25 years old. She is ranked 511 in the world and has not played a competitive match for eight months. Until today.

Robson made the trip from Bath, where she had commentated with me on the final rubber of Britain’s run to the Fed Cup World Group 2 play-offs, to Shrewsbury, home of an exceptionally well-run but modest ‘futures’ event for young players trying to make their mark, cobble a living together or come back from injury. Courts and qualifying matches run side-by-side, there are few officials and no ball-kids. When the ball hits the net on her side, Robson walks up to retrieve it. If it ricochets onto the adjacent court, she waits patiently for one of the other players to pat it back to her. She is up against the World No.304, Jessica Pieri of Italy. The long, winding journey to a destination currently unknown starts here. 

It was during Wimbledon last year that Robson took the plunge to have surgery. Rather than competing with the world’s best players on Centre Court for senior trophies, as so many of the greats had predicted that one day she would do, Robson was navigating her way into the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary box that overlooks the most famous patch of grass in tennis, on crutches. I have 17 years of experience stumbling and stooping my way into that most privileged but body-contorting of commentary positions, with its 5 foot ceiling. Much as I love every minute spent sitting there, and much as I enjoy Robson’s insightful, irreverent, acerbic company on the mic, it was sad to see her sitting there with crutches next to her, so far from the player that we all expected her to become. 

After months of wrestling with the pain and inhibitions caused by her hip, Robson had gone into hospital for three days to have her ligament, cartilage and labrum repaired. “The triple-whammy,” she said, on The Tennis Podcast over the weekend. 

While the hip has kept her out of action for the best part of a year, it is the left wrist that has been largely responsible for the lost 6 years since her run to the last 16 at Wimbledon in 2013. 

Back then, BT Sport had just announced that they were to take up rights to the WTA Tour in the UK, and I had just been asked to join their commentary team. It seemed the perfect time for a new UK sports broadcaster to begin covering women’s tennis, with Robson at a career-high World No.27 and seemingly about to gatecrash the world’s elite.

Word from ex-champions and top coaches was that she needed to improve her movement, and work harder in practice and in the gym, but in terms of natural ball-striking ability and big-match temperament, she seemed to have it all. The combination of left-handed serves slid out wide to Maria Sharapova’s backhand on Court One at Wimbledon in 2011, and then forehand winners sent crashing down the line, would take some stopping. Her run to the last 16 at the US Open a year later, in which she ended Kim Clijsters’ career in two tie-breaks, and then beat Li Na, seemed to be sealed nervelessly, and we were moving our 5 Live broadcast schedules around to cover her every move. At the Australian Open in 2013, she went toe-to-toe with a fellow left-hander that she was often compared to - Petra Kvitova, and won. I watched highlights of the match yesterday to remind myself of the level she had been playing at. It was high.

When I covered the Miami Open in 2013, Robson’s doubles partner Lisa Raymond, with whom she reached the final, told me on the pod: ‘She’s got such a phenomenal future ahead of her. I liken her to a young Lindsay Davenport. She hits such a clean, heavy ball. Keep an eye out for this girl!” I sampled the cleanly struck ball that week in Miami during a Wilson racquet-testing event that Simon Briggs and I both attended. She tried, in vain, not to laugh at our pathetic excuses for groundstrokes.

David, Laura and Simon Briggs in 2013

David, Laura and Simon Briggs in 2013

In January 2014, I sat courtside on a steaming hot opening day at the Australian Open, as Robson took to the court against Kirsten Flipkens. Rumours had circulated about whether her ongoing wrist issue would enable her to take to the court. Fifty minutes later, she was out of the event before anyone else, 6-3, 6-0, and looking a ghost of the player that had beaten Kvitova 12 months earlier. It was the last we would see of her, on-court, for 18 months, such was the extent of an injury that would require surgery. 

I next saw her in June at The Queen’s Club, with her wrist in a cast after surgery, but her injury troubles were not at the forefront of her mind. A month earlier, Elena Baltacha had died of liver cancer at the tragically young age of 30. Robson, who had played on the same Fed Cup team as Baltacha just a year earlier, was devastated, and became a driving force behind Rally For Bally, designed to raise money to continue the work of the Elena Baltacha Foundation, which created opportunities for kids to play tennis in Baltacha’s hometown of Ipswich. Robson had designed and sourced yellow ‘Rally For Bally’ wristbands to sell, helped put on a sponsored 24-hour tennis marathon at the National Tennis Centre, and was now at Queen’s to help Andy Murray, Victoria Azarenka and other stars of the event to raise further funds. As well as the common decency she showed in stepping up to support the foundation, it was also a first glimpse for me of a sense-of-humour that she has since displayed during commentary on BT Sport, and in her appearance on The Tennis Podcast this week. If there’s an opportunity to take the mickey out of someone, she won’t pass it up. 

She won only a single game on her comeback against Daria Gavrilova in Eastbourne in 2014, and her first win back was a 7-6, 6-7, 6-3 triumph over a 17-year-old from Japan, called Naomi Osaka, in Granby, Canada. Osaka has become quite good. You might have heard of her. 

Since then, Robson largely trod water and then hit the rocks with the latest serious injury, and it’s now back to square one. She beat Pieri without finishing the match, the Italian retiring while 1-6, 0-1 down. When the grainy, stationary, single camera stream showed one of the players asking for a medical timeout at the end of the first set, there were hearts in mouths. I’m embarrassed to say that I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out that it wasn’t Robson that called for the attention. 

Laura and Clare Balding at the Fed Cup World Group 2 play-offs  (Photo: C1 Media for BTSport)

Laura and Clare Balding at the Fed Cup World Group 2 play-offs
(Photo: C1 Media for BTSport)

She has shown enough in her commentary over the last few days to convince that it is another avenue she could explore if things don’t work out back on the court. Her interest in the game outside of her own, playfulness, and willingness to speak bluntly and candidly about matches in which contemporaries are playing, is appealing. It’s too early to be thinking about just watching though. Robson wants to play. So what’s the goal?

“I just want to feel healthy and happy out there,” she told us on The Tennis Podcast over the weekend. “For a long time I haven’t been healthy when I’ve been playing and it’s really brought me down mentally. So if I can get through this year and finish it off with a healthy hip and a healthy wrist, I’ll be very happy with that.”

She may never achieve what so many predicted for her 10 years ago, but if anyone deserves another injury-free run at it, it’s her. Good luck, Laura. 

Laura Robson Timeline

Laura Robson, aged 14, wins Wimbledon junior title. 

Robson, aged 17, takes Maria Sharapova to a tie-break at Wimbledon.
The Russian says: “I think she’s got great potential”

Robson beats Kim Clijsters at the US Open to end the Belgian’s career, then Li Na. 
“A star is being born”, says Chris Evert.
“She could do something big. Top 10 for sure.” - John McEnroe

Robson edges Petra Kvitova 11-9 in the final set at the Australian Open. 
She reaches Last 16 at Wimbledon. 
“I just watched a future Top 5 player and Slam winner in Robson.” - Pat Cash

Wrist surgery.
Hip surgery.
Commentary. Return.