ROME — It doesn’t get much more precocious than this: After winning the 2008 Wimbledon junior title, giggly Laura Robson, 14, was asked if she she was ready to take on Venus Williams, who won Wimbledon that year.
“I’ll take her down,” she said with a face-breaking grin.
It took five years for her to get a chance to make good on that lighthearted promise, but it finally happened on a windy Monday in Rome. Robson, now 19, beat a struggling Venus 6-3, 6-2 in the first round of the Italian Open to earn a shot at Serena Williams in the second round.
“My mom sent [that video] to me the other day to remind me of it, as though I can ever forget saying something so stupid,” Robson said of those Wimbledon comments with a laugh. “I saw her play at Wimbledon at 10, I think. I was kind of blown away by how fast she hit the ball. When she hit it in the center of the racket today, it was pretty much point over.”
Unfortunately for Venus, those hits were few and far between. In swirling winds that wreaked havoc on everything from tosses to trash, the seven-time major champion was nowhere near her best. Venus struggled with her serve and footwork, hobbled by a back injury that forced her to skip last week’s Madrid Open and unable to make the necessary adjustments to handle Robson’s depth.
“She didn’t play her best,” Robson said. “It’s always hard to play a high-quality game of tennis in that wind.”
The win was Robson’s fourth over a major champion (Kim Clijsters, Li Na and Petra Kvitova are the others) and comes a week after she notched her first top-five win, beating No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska in Madrid. She also split from coach Zeljko Krajan after a nine-month partnership.
“It sounds a bit silly, but we didn’t have that much in common,” Robson said. “We come from two very different backgrounds, and his way of working was a bit different from mine.”
She brushed off Krajan’s criticism of her maturity.
“It just didn’t click,” she said. “He’s free to say whatever, that’s fine.”
She’s working with Adidas’ Sven Groeneveld and the LTA’s Lucy Ahl through Wimbledon and will reassess after that.
One Williams sister down, another to go. Robson faces the ultimate test against Serena on Tuesday night. The American is on a 19-match, three-title winning streak and looking to win her first Italian Open since 2002.
“It’s definitely a tough draw, but I’ve had my fair share of easy draws this year that I haven’t taken advantage of,” Robson said. “I was really excited to get out there today. Sven was telling me to calm down before the match because I was jumping around for about an hour because I had so much energy and I was so excited. So yeah, I’m really excited to play Serena.”
There won’t be too many secrets for Serena when she takes the court. Robson used to be coached by Patrick Mouratoglou, now Serena’s coaching consultant.
“She has a great game, I think,” Serena said. “She’s really young still and she’s just so free and she hits great on the court. She’s so smooth. And she’s lefty so that also just adds a whole notch to her level.”
It will be their first matchup.
“She’s playing pretty much the best tennis of her life right now and she’s not losing at all,” Robson said. “So it’s going to be insanely tough, but I’m going to go out there with nothing to lose.”