Going into Laura Robson’s first-round match against 10th-seeded Maria Kirilenko on Tuesday, British tennis players not named Andy Murray had won all of one set in seven matches at Wimbledon.
Robson, Britain’s top-ranked woman at No. 38, was handed a difficult opponent to start, but as her countrymen and countrywomen continued to lose, she also walked onto Court No. 1 with the annual hand-wringing over the state of British tennis already underway.
But Robson rose to the occasion. With her booming left-handed serve, she took control of the match and defeated Kirilenko.
“It was a big one for me because, although I really like grass and I seem to play well on it, I’ve never actually done overly well here,” said Robson. “I’ve only made the second round once.”
She added: “I thought I could win. I didn’t expect to win.”
Kirilenko was having a career year. She broke into the top 10 after reaching the fourth round at the Australian Open, the semifinals at Indian Wells and the quarterfinals at the French Open. She was a quarterfinalist at Wimbledon last year.
Robson had eight aces and 31 winners. A former junior champion at Wimbledon who won a silver medal with Murray in mixed doubles at the Olympics here last year, Robson broke through at the U.S. Open, beating Li Na and Kim Clijsters on her way to the round of 16.
“In the past I’ve started out well in the first couple of games of the first set and then just not been able to hold onto that lead,” said Robson. “I’ve been really happy with my progress with the last couple of months with that and just being able to tough out wins.”
A day after Rafael Nadal’s shocking upset on the same court on Monday, Robson’s victory caused the biggest ripple at the All England Club.
Getting back to normal at Wimbledon meant worrying about British tennis. As the home fans relish Murray’s best chance to break the British drought here, poor overall results perpetuate concerns about the Lawn Tennis Association, the national governing body of the sport.
An independent chairman, David Gregson, began in January and is conducting a review of the organization. Executive director Roger Draper resigned in March, and his replacement has not yet been chosen.
Sport England, which distributes taxpayer money for sports, has withheld millions of pounds and reduced overall funding to the LTA because it had failed to meet participation goals.
Murray, a Scot who trained in Spain during his formative years, is the only British man in the top 100. There are two British women in the top 100, Robson and Heather Watson, compared with 10 American women.
That situation was lampooned by Owen Slot, a reporter for The Times of London , in an essay in The Wall Street Journal before the tournament, which called on the United States to please stop developing these young women tennis players. Or send us your off-cuts. Because Wimbledon is humiliating for the home team.
On the BBC telecast after Robson’s match, Virginia Wade started to talk about Robson doing something incredible in the tournament and imagining a quarterfinal meeting with Serena Williams, causing the anchor Sue Barker to say, “Calm down, Virginia.”
It was understandable, though. British fans had had so little to cheer about.
“Virginia always gets quite excited, doesn’t she?” Robson said, when told of Wades’ comments. “I’d love to win a couple more matches, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.” — New York Times News Service