Day One drama - and Day Two disappointment - at the Aegon. Kevin Anderson captures the action
Laura Robson was centre stage on the Devonshire Park’s opening weekend, returning from recent injuries with a thrilling victory on Saturday afternoon, only to succumb to a thigh injury in her Sunday morning encounter with Madison Brengle.
Opening the Sunday morning action on Centre Court, Robson had led 4-2 in the first set against Brengle, only to see it slip from her grasp, and after just one second-set game she was forced to cede the match: a quite forlorn figure drawing warm sympathy from the home crowd.
But back to Day One. With free admission, Saturday is People’s Day at the Aegon, and Eastbourne folk turned up in numbers, despite a hint of drizzle. They were there not only for the occasion but in hope of some fine tennis, and they were not disappointed. With all three British wild cards - Dunne, Robson and Christie - on the schedule, the patriotism readings were pretty high, and Court One was packed and heaving. At every changeover, indeed, spectators were jostling for the empty seats like commuters on the Underground, and one or two sharp words were exchanged. Ah, how genteel this great sport of tennis can be...
First up was 21-year-old Katy Dunne, facing a daunting opponent in Madison Brengle, who imposed herself early in the match. Katy showed spirit at the end of the first set and the start of the second, when she briefly broke but could not quite sustain the offensive, and she bowed out - with plenty of credit - at 6-3 6-3.
But if that was the undercard, so to speak, then Laura Robson, up next, was the main bout. The brightest of young stars when she won British hearts at the London Olympics, Laura has been dogged by injury on and off ever since. A year ago to the day, here on Court One, her attempted return from a maddening wrist injury was ruthlessly stopped by Daria Gavrilova, the little Aussie/Russian terrier whose high-energy attack had never allowed Robson into the match. This year, a different opponent and a whole different scenario. Yi Fan Xu, tall and slender like Laura herself, is a stylish player with cool focus and a lovely range of shots. We were set for a treat.
Robson, welcomed like a returning heroine by the Eastbourne crowd, looks lean and fit currently, and an inch taller every time you see her. Must be a Court One optical illusion. And in a match that swayed back and forth, both girls gave rich entertainment and a deal of high drama.
Xu is quite an intriguing player. Outward calm, inner composure, steely nerve. She might just be the only girl on the circuit who plays in shades, and at the changeovers she will take her glug of water and sit, motionless with towel over lap, in a kind of mindful contemplation. You almost expect her to come back on court with a little Tai Chi step. With Robson, by contrast, the emotion is often only just below the surface, and there was a touch of angst at times when a shot misfired or a shot selection backfired.
Two left-handers often seem to produce lovely tennis. With elegant sweeping forehands and punchy two-handed backhands, these two went steadily up through the gears in a match which did not instantly ignite. Robson had a break point to go 4-2 up, but two suspect line calls thwarted her, and the set stayed even until 5-5, when Laura seemed to switch up a gear, powering to hold her own serve and then take the set 7-5.
But at 1-2 in the second, Robson took a medical time-out and emerged with an ominously strapped thigh. There was still little to choose, but Xu kept raising her game and she looked to have the set sewn up, serving at 6-5 and 40-0. But digging remarkably deep, Laura hauled it back magnificently to deuce and then levelled the set. The force was with her now, never mind the crowd too, and she blistered her way through the decisive tie-break to take the match 7-5, 7-6.
One tournament hurdle cleared, then, but Day Two was to bring huge disappointment. Brengle, Katy Dunne’s conqueror, had begun the first set slowly, dropping a serve but coming back in an absolutely pivotal seventh game that went to six deuces before the American girl clinched it. Then, with further medical attention and evident discomfort, Robson had no choice but to withdraw. A high of excitement on an enthralling Saturday evening, cruelly replaced by a despairing Sunday. Sport does that to you....