By David Kane
As 2012 draws to a close, tennis fans feel a distinct sense of divergence on the WTA Tour, as the top women gear up for the Year-End Championships in Istanbul, while the rest give their year one last push in the effort to pick up as many points as possible. While many are looking ahead in anticipation of seeing some of the year’s bigger storylines wrap up, there is still tennis to be played and stories to be told. One such story concerns up-and-coming British talents, Heather Watson and Laura Robson.
Of late, some UK media outlets have errantly spliced the two ladies’ names together, but they are two very different players with contrasting styles. In Watson, one sees the diligent counter-puncher; in Robson, the red-lining aggressor. These two junior Slam champions have seen their careers unfold quite differently since each took the plunge into senior events. In fact, tracking the progress of Great Britain’s top women plays out much like your classic Aesop Fable, “The Tortoise and the Hare.”
The younger Robson perfectly plays the role of the “Hare.” She is the textbook prodigy who has had a career defined by fits and starts, thanks to injuries and inconsistency. In the last few months, she has shown a renewed focus that has allowed her results to transcend even her Twitter ubiquity. Robson still enjoys a considerable amount of internet celebrity; her most recent burst of technological creativity brought the men’s and women’s tours together when she and Canadian Eugenie Bouchard created a video dedicated to the “Gangnam Style” Dance:
These sudden and drastic moves have quickly overshadowed Heather Watson, the patient “Tortoise.” Her rise only appears slower because of its comparative lack of explosiveness. In reality, Watson has been the true pioneer for British women’s tennis for this decade. After all, it was Watson who was the first British woman into the second round of the French Open since 1994, and the first to the third round of Wimbledon since 2002. She broke into the top 100 before Robson, and even pushed Maria Sharapova to three sets at the 2011 US Open. However, as is often the case in tennis, one big result can often do twice as much as one hundred smaller ones. Before this week, it was Robson who peaked the highest, and on the biggest stages, making her the household name both arguably deserve to be.
So when both were entered into the Osaka draw, no one was looking at the unseeded Watson, who upset Anabel Medina Garrigues en route to the quarterfinals. Instead, all eyes were on the eighth-seeded Robson, who was a match away from a rematch with US Open conqueror Sam Stosur. In a surprising reversal, the “Hare” stalled in a three-set loss to Chang Kai-Chen, and it was the Tortoise who found herself winning her way to her first WTA final, the very achievement Robson earned a few weeks earlier in Guangzhou.
This time, however, it was Watson who went one better, and even injected a dose of seemingly absent excitement to her story as she saved four match points (after serving for the match herself in the second set) to defeat Chang for the first WTA title won by a British woman since 1988.
A fairly extreme analogy, to be sure; this week neither spells the end for the rising Robson, nor does it predict a dramatic surge from Watson that would outstrip her more naturally talented rival. Instead, let it serve as an important reminder that Aesop’s moral still rings true, that sometimes “slow and steady wins the race.”