Laura Robson exclusive: 'Injuries ended my career but they made me a better person'

·8 min read
Laura Robson exclusive: 'Injuries ended my career but they made me a better person' - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph
Laura Robson exclusive: 'Injuries ended my career but they made me a better person' - Geoff Pugh for the Telegraph

Laura Robson is OK. She wants you to know that. It is three months since she was forced to concede defeat in an apparently ceaseless battle with her own body and, rather than descending into the sort of gloom that so often settles on retired sportspeople, she almost seems liberated.

“I am at peace with it now - I've had loads of time to work through it,” she says. Then she laughs. “My surgeon even sent me a bottle of wine.”

That Robson feels relief, rather than regret, is perhaps understandable when you think of her physical struggles over the past eight years. A tally of four major operations - one on her wrist in 2014, and three on her hip between 2018 and 2021 - and months spent in rehab would have stretched any athlete’s endurance to breaking point. For Robson, who was hailed as the future of British women’s tennis when Emma Raducanu was only just starting primary school, it must have been particularly painful.

And yet here she is - smiling, relaxed, and looking remarkably similar to when she was at the peak of her powers in 2013, when she reached her highest world ranking of 27.

We are speaking at a fitness studio tucked away in the Surbiton Racket and Fitness Club and, as she describes the moment of realisation that her playing career was over at the age of 28, it is clear that she has finally come to terms with her new reality.

Laura Robson celebrates her victory against Marina Erakovic - HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY
Laura Robson celebrates her victory against Marina Erakovic - HEATHCLIFF O'MALLEY

Not that those early days were easy. Robson was told her career was over by her team of doctors as she sat alongside physiotherapist Rob Hill and former LTA chief medical officer Dr Jo Larkin, both long-term allies. There were tears when the news was broken, but after that, simply silence.

“I knew that I couldn't play, but when I was told by my surgeon, I kept it to myself for ages,” she says, in her first newspaper interview since retirement. “I didn’t even tell my friends and family just because I was so devastated about it. Then once I got that out of the way and told the people closest to me, it wasn't until months later that I announced it officially. I just felt it wasn't something that I felt that people needed to know straight away.

“It wasn't anyone's business, as well, because it's something that I went through for years while I was struggling with my hip. So, since I've actually got it out in the open, I feel a lot better about it. I feel like I can share my experiences a lot more and hopefully keep it way more positive than the last couple years have been.”

The image of Robson broken and sobbing in a doctor’s surgery is a difficult one to reconcile with the player whose wide smile, easy charm and crunching forehand made her one of the most popular British players of her generation. She was seriously talented, too - a junior Wimbledon champion aged 14 in 2008, twice a runner-up in the junior Australian Open and an Olympic silver medallist in the London 2012 mixed doubles alongside Andy Murray.

Robson and Andy Murray teamed up to win silver in the mixed doubles at London 2012 - REUTERS
Robson and Andy Murray teamed up to win silver in the mixed doubles at London 2012 - REUTERS

Ultimately, tennis’ most exalted heights eluded her, largely down to a body that could not quite stand up to the strain of relentless touring, particularly her troublesome hip. The injury first flared in July 2018 and while there was a brief return to the circuit eight months later, she broke down again towards the end of 2019 and never played another match.

Retirement may have felt inevitable, but it was still a bitter realisation. “Me, my physio and the doctor I had been working with were all absolutely gutted because it was something that we'd been working away at for years. After the third operation [the decision became] more for quality of life than to be able to go out and play tennis again. It just felt like it was a bit for nothing, you know, all that time.”

She laughs again, albeit a hollow one this time. “There was all that hard work in the gym and in the physio room and in the end it didn't matter.”

Robson was not one of those tennis players who resents the sport, and the demands it placed on her. She loved the thrill of competition, and even relished the cycle of touring, hopping from hotel to hotel, time zone to time zone,all while barely being able to draw breath. Indeed, she becomes most animated in our conversation when she admits she could write an in-depth guide book to the various destinations. She picks out Melbourne – the city of her birth - as one of her favourite stops as well as Rome.

Robson loved the travelling associated with being on tour - here she is holding a saltwater crocodile ahead of 2014's Australian Open - REUTERS
Robson loved the travelling associated with being on tour - here she is holding a saltwater crocodile ahead of 2014's Australian Open - REUTERS

She will miss the adrenaline surge of a big win, and the challenge of taking on the world’s best, but there are more prosaic things that will also prompt a few nostalgic pangs. “One of my favourite memories was the US Open [in 2012, when she reached the fourth round]. I had my sister with me those two weeks. Every time I'd look up and fist pump to the box, she was there and she was just always so happy to be there.”

She pauses, lost in thought for a moment.

“Now I'm a bit more removed from it, my best memories of tennis are ones where I was at tournaments with my mum and dad or I had friends there rather than the actual matches.”

There is a striking self-awareness to Robson. She freely admits that being a very good tennis player did not always make her the best company, or bring out the best in her personality.

“I guess until my first big major injury things had always kind of gone my way. I was transitioning to the seniors pretty well and it was all very straightforward. I don't think that I was necessarily aware of how to be the best daughter or how to be the best friend because everything was about me.

“That is something that all individual sports people have, you know? The world revolves around you and your success and the team around you. Everyone's there to help you get to where you want to be. Then all of a sudden when I was injured and I'd go home, it was like, ‘Oh, how do I do this? How do I be a normal person for the next couple of months?’

Laura Robson of Great Britain reacts during her women's singles fourth round match against Samantha Stosur of Australia on Day Seven of the 2012 US Open - GETTY IMAGES
Laura Robson of Great Britain reacts during her women's singles fourth round match against Samantha Stosur of Australia on Day Seven of the 2012 US Open - GETTY IMAGES

“You learn how to not be jealous, I guess, because I'd be in the gym, working away doing rehab and I’d see people coming back from tournaments where they've just done well.

“Now, I am genuinely happy for other people when they do well. But I had to learn that because it's really hard when you're in the moment not to feel like, ‘That should be me’.”

Robson has no intention of leaving tennis behind completely. She has worked for the BBC as a pundit at recent Wimbledons, where her observations on the likes of Raducanu carry the weight of experience, and also played the invitational doubles in SW19 in July. We are talking in her capacity as an ambassador for Vodafone’s Play Your Way to Wimbledon with the All England Lawn Tennis Club and LTA, and she is working with the LTA on expanding the number of events available to play.

She is also revelling in “normal life” and points to her black Labrador Winnie as a particular comfort. Having spent so much of her youth on the road, far from home, she has some catching up to do.

“I would miss out on birthdays and weddings - you know, these fun celebrations. So for the first time I was like, ‘Yeah, you know what, I'll say yes to everything.’ I'll have stuff in the diary. And I guess that sort of got me through in a lot of ways - being able to see friends and family in a way I couldn’t before.”

For many the abiding image of Robson will still be her as a precocious 14-year-old, lifting the small silver cup awarded to the junior Wimbledon champion above her head, flashing a brilliant smile to the cameras. It has been some journey since, so what would she say to her teenage self if she could pass on some advice?

Laura Robson - GETTY IMAGES
Laura Robson - GETTY IMAGES

“I would say to enjoy it more, to live a bit more in the moment. I mean it's the most cliche thing ever, but I think had I known when I was that age that I wasn't going to play until I was 35 in the way that I thought I would then I definitely would have had a better time on court. I would just say: ‘What a great life you've got.’”

Laura Robson is supporting Vodafone Play Your Way to Wimbledon, inspiring the next generation of British talent.