It is a mark of how far British tennis has come that after 24 years of drought the country now has two women competing for titles. Like London buses two have come along at once and, though they remain relatively raw, keeping a lid on expectations is already proving impossible.
The two, of course, are Heather Watson and Laura Robson, close friends off the court who, all being well, will be rivals on it at the very biggest events on the world stage for some years to come. On Sunday the 20-year-old Watson became the first British woman to win a singles title on the WTA Tour since Sara Gomer in 1988. Watson's victory in the Japan Open in Osaka lifted her to a career-high ranking of No50.
Robson, who is 18 months younger, is close behind her, at No52, and three weeks ago reached her first Tour final. No wonder people are getting carried away.
Watson's triumph was a fine reward for years of toil at the Nick Bollettieri IMG academy in Florida, where she has trained since the age of 12. With the exception of her family no one was more proud of Watson's achievement than the man himself, who on Monday said he had sent her his congratulations, in his own unique style. "I sent her a text and it said: wow, holy mackerel, holy cow, holy shit," Bollettieri says.
Bollettieri is the man who brought through Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, among others, and under his tutelage and coaches Watson has blossomed into a title-winning player. She is as good a mover as there is on the Tour and her consistency means she is never going to be easy to beat. She may not have the natural power of the left-handed Robson, who possesses a huge forehand and a wicked serve, but she is trying to take control of matches when she can.
Bollettieri says Watson should not worry about making rash predictions. "I believe the future's very bright and she's not reached her ultimate," the American said. "I believe she should not say, 'I want to break the top 10 or the top 20,' just, 'I'm going to go higher in the ranking."
Praising the influence of her coach, Mauricio Hadad, Bollettieri believes the 20-year-old needs to find a way to take the attack to others. "I think she has to come forward even a little more," he said. "If she has that transition game [she can fight for titles]. I don't believe that just staying back there [will work]. She's going to have to put fright in the top players that, if they hit tentative second serves, she's coming after your arse."
Speak to former players and coaches and most of them will say that Robson has the more obvious claims to winning a grand slam title. "If you look at Petra Kvitova [the 2011 Wimbledon champion], they're spitting images," says Annabel Croft, a former British No1, who knows what it is like to deal with the pressure of expectation in this country. "At the US Open she was pushing Kim Clijsters back, even on the returns, and you don't see that very often. She's got so much talent."
Having struggled with injuries amid growing pains at 16 and 17, Robson has been fully fit for much of this year and her movement has improved beyond recognition. The junior Wimbledon champion at 14, she has been tipped for the top for a long time and she is starting to look the real deal. "She's got huge weapons," Bollettieri admits. "She's got the big serve and she slaps the forehand. The big thing with her will be physical conditioning; the faster she gets, the more solid her foundation is, the better she's going to be."
Andrew Castle, a former British No1 and now, like Croft, a pundit, describes them both as a breath of fresh air. "The great thing is that both have so much room for improvement. With Laura, mobility is everything – just look at Djokovic and Murray – but you can work on that; she's got all the talent in the world, fighting ability, a massive forehand.
"It's really very tidy. Heather is tenacious and her mobility is unbelievable. She just needs to hit the ball harder, move up into the court and take the ball on a bit quicker. You probably have only 10 or 20 current [top] players who are going to be around in four or five years, so why wouldn't it be these two who get up into the top 10?"
Robson has always been something of the chosen one – winning junior Wimbledon was always going to get more attention than Watson's junior US Open triumph the following year – but the pair seem to feed off each other. When Robson was chosen above Watson to partner Andy Murray in the mixed doubles at the Olympics, there could easily have been a problem between the two. But it seems not.
"I was really interested to see how Heather would do in the summer," Croft says. "She didn't get chosen to be Andy's partner, even though she had won doubles titles. I think she was probably quite taken aback. Then to watch Laura do so well at the US Open must have been hard. But clearly they're so good for each other. It's an exciting time."
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image: © Bruno Girin