Signs are emerging by the week that Laura Robson and Heather Watson – the first British players to reside together in the WTA top 50 since Jo Durie and Sara Gomer 25 years ago – are going to enjoy many fine battles with the rising American teenager Sloane Stephens. If they collide at the Australian Open next week, the women's game should be thankful.
Stephens, 18, is a year younger than Robson and showed in closing out a tough first-round win over her at the Moorilla International in Hobart why she has reached a career-high ranking of 29. "We both played a good match, considering the conditions weren't great," she said after winning 6-4, 7-6 in blustery wind, as the remnants of bush fires were doused in Tasmania.
Robson will not be too disappointed, however. She continues to improve on her second-set tennis, a legacy of her outstanding victories over Kim Clijsters and Li Na at the US Open last year, and pushed Stephens all the way to a deciding tie-break, coming back from 1-3 down after a slow start.
Robson, who has raced 80 places up the rankings ladder in 12 months, has taken a little while to realise her fitness and movement were holding back her development, but she has shown admirable dedication to the project after recovering so well from injury, then threw herself into a fierce pre-Christmas fitness programme in Miami alongside Andy Murray and his conditioner, Jez Green.
Stephens's reputation grows by the tournament. In her first outing since the US Open, she reached the quarter-finals in Brisbane last week, losing to the rejuvenated Serena Williams, who went on to win the title and who will start as a favourite at the Australian Open.
Watson, meanwhile, withdrew from Hobart to rest the elbow she hurt in Auckland last week, although says she is hopeful of playing in Melbourne. She has encouraging form and results to build on, having recently become the first British player since Gomer in 1987 to win a WTA tournament. Watson, Robson and Stephens have plenty of competition among the young pack chasing them, however, including the 18-year-old violin-playing German Annika Beck, and the other young American making noises, Taylor Townsend, only 16, who has Williams has a vocal supporter.
The WTA rankings, released on Monday, have Victoria Azarenka still at No1, ahead of Maria Sharapova, who will spend the next few days, no doubt, fending off media inquiries about her rumoured romance with Grigor Dimitrov. If he needed further light in his life, it came with his jump from 48 to 41 in the ATP rankings on Monday, and his stylish tennis should attract as many inquiries over the next few weeks as his relationship with Sharapova. After switching trainers in November, Dimitrov is showing signs of genuine maturity as a player.
The evidence of a liaison between the 21-year-old Bulgarian – burdened with the soubriquet Baby Fed because of his single-handed backhand and fluid stroke-making – and the 25-year-old expatriate Russian, who left her American boyfriend last year, comes from a few references in the Australian newspapers and claims by the ESPN tennis analyst Darren Rovell, on the back of their being photographed together in Milan recently.
"I don't discuss my private life," Dimitrov said after losing to Andy Murray in the final of the Brisbane International on Sunday. True or not, the stories will add glamour and intrigue to the tournament, in the way that only Sharapova can provide. Whether or not her game is in good enough shape to get the better of Williams we will learn soon enough.
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