In the midst of all the Olympic and Paralympic joy, we run the risk of failing to recognise that 2012 has been a genuinely stellar year for Great British tennis. For so long the nearly sport of the UK competitive calendar, tennis was beginning to become the albatross around British sporting achievement. Where rugby, cricket, football (at least in the women’s form; the less said about the men’s the better), hockey, cycling, golf and almost every other sport had made progress from the British perspective, tennis success remained stubbornly elusive.
Until midway through the year, names that had for so long haunted British hopefuls continued to dominate talk of British progress. Josiah Ritchie (the last British man to win an Olympic gold medal in tennis – 1908), Fred Perry (the last British man to win a Grand Slam – 1936), Jo Durie (the last British woman to reach a WTA Singles Final – 1990), Sara Gomer (the last British woman to win a WTA Singles Title – 1988).
By mid-September, each of those records would have fallen to competitors who hadn’t even been conceived when those landmarks were reached.
The year may have begun ignominiously enough with first-round exits for both Robson and Watson in the Australian Open but, as with so many things, the Olympics changed everything; but not before Wimbledon set things in motion.
It may seem curious to find the seed of inspiration for the success of women’s tennis this year in the men’s draw for the 2012 Wimbledon Championships, but when Andy Murray pushed Roger Federer so close in the final of the men’s singles, something broke. The Murray that re-emerged at the All England Club to contest the both the London 2012 men’s singles and the mixed doubles events was another beast entirely. Imperious, powerful, graceful and, more than anything else, determined not to come so close again. His progress through the men’s singles draw was immense; in the mixed doubles, he was matched with a young woman struggling to emerge from her own early shadow. The teamwork was perfect.
Robson herself clearly found belief in defeat as well; her second round Olympic loss to Maria Sharapova came under the closest-fought of circumstances and, though she and Watson as a doubles pairing lost in the first round of the women’s doubles, Robson and Murray became the perfect combination of skill and will to win.
By final day, while Murray roared his way to men’s singles Gold, Robson was focussing on their own final against doubles compatriots Victoria Azarenka and Max Mirnyi. Although the British pairing would be forced to settle for silver, British tennis has perceptibly changed. It didn’t need to be the loser for any longer. And all three major protagonists took this shift to their own advantage.
Murray, of course, would go on to win the US Open. But what of Robson and Watson?
Watson had already marked her card by becoming the first British woman to reach the 3rd round of Wimbledon in 10 years, but it was Olympic Silver Medallist Laura Robson who would make the first dart, defeating Kim Clijsters at the US Open en route to becoming the first British woman to reach the 4th round of a Grand Slam in 14 years. Despite defeat at the hands of Sam Stosur, Robson’s next tournament consigned one 22-year record to historical insignificance, by reaching the final of the Guangzhou Open where she was eventually defeated by Hsieh Su-wei. Robson’s exploits earned her recognition as the most successful British female tennis player for more than a decade.
Her record would last a matter of weeks.
While Heather Watson’s year had not, perhaps, hit the highlights of her compatriot’s, she had nonetheless made strong progress throughout the women’s tour. Come October, and with few tournaments left in the 2012 tour, Watson truly clicked. At the 2012 Japan (HP) Open, she succeeded where no British woman had in 24 years, by winning a WTA Singles Title, defeating Kai-Chen Chang in a 3 hour epic during which Watson saved four match points before emerging victorious.
With both Watson and Robson openly acknowledging that the achievements of each has inspired the other over the course of 2012, British tennis finally found itself in a perfect storm of success inspiring success inspiring success.
Tennis, of course, still has significant issues within Great Britain and the recent decision by Sport England to withhold a significant tranche of development funding until a genuine plan for investing into the game at grass roots level is formulated will come as no surprise to many observers both interested and casual. However with figures post London 2012 seeing the hugest rise in female sport participation being teenage girls hitting the tennis courts there is, finally, genuine cause for optimism and we look forward to seeing how this year’s achievements bear out in 2013.
For now, the successes of both Laura Robson and Heather Watson in 2012 earn the London 2012 Olympics Mixed Doubles Final, the Guangzhou Open Final and the Japanese Open Final fifth place in our top moments of 2012.
Image from http://www.standard.co.uk/olympics/olympics-sport (thanks!)