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Laura Robson interview: ‘Having more strings to my bow makes me feel calmer’

Laura Robson – Laura Robson interview: What it is like to run a tennis tournament – when it rains
Laura Robson has overcome multiple obstacles as tournament director of the Nottingham Open - The Telegraph/Darren Staples

Laura Robson is the youngest female tournament director in tennis. She also might be the first to volunteer to personally pick up players’ laundry.

“I’m taking Cameron Norrie and Heather Watson’s laundry back to London, which they forgot here,” she says. “Oh, and I spent the first day onsite popping to Tesco to buy sweets for the player lounge. They went so quickly, I’ve since had to go five more times, bought about 10 kilos, and had to ration them.”

With that she offers me a peach-flavoured chewy sweet, and continues showing me around the grounds.

It is safe to say Robson is taking a hands-on approach at the Nottingham Open. While others might be alright with being the ceremonial figurehead, that is not her style.

Last week marked her second year running the WTA 250 and ATP Challenger events, a role she earned after managing an unglamorous ITF 25k event in Loughborough (where she found herself chauffeuring players to the hotel), as well as shadowing tournament directors at Queen’s and the Miami Open to learn the ropes.

The experience came in handy. During her first year last summer, there were huge highs and lows to manage: Andy Murray’s wildcard win in the men’s draw, close friend Katie Boulter’s maiden title, a lightning strike hitting Centre Court and also a poignant minute’s silence, after a knife attack rocked the city midway through the tournament.

This year, Telegraph Sport spends day five of the main draw with Robson, where the biggest challenge is the weather. She keeps remarkably positive despite the deluge of rain and talks through her favourite weather forecast apps, which she refreshes on her phone all morning.

Laura Robson – Laura Robson interview: What it is like to run a tennis tournament – when it rains
For Robson, multitasking and stretching herself has become second nature - The Telegraph/Darren Staples

During our amble around the site, Robson’s jobs vary: she is stopped by the head groundsman and the WTA supervisor, who both provide differing rain updates. At the player desk, they ask if she knows the owner of an abandoned children’s toy, which was found blocking a pocket on the pool table.

Soon after, a line judge asks for a signed racket from Robson’s personal collection to donate to a charity appeal. She smiles serenely throughout, offering helpful solutions, and sporadically listens to her walkie-talkie radio, which crackles to life every few minutes.

While sheltering from the rain in the player canteen, LTA coach Colin Beecher delivers Robson’s cortado coffee, which he and Dan Evans have picked up at an off-site cafe. “Thanks Beechy,” she says, adding: “I did the coffee run earlier this week so it was their turn!”

Adaptability is essential. Part of the week in Nottingham was spent quelling tensions, after Harriet Dart’s fiery run-in with the line judges (“We took the officials some tea and cakes to boost team morale”) and she also negotiated a potentially awkward situation, explaining to top seed Ons Jabeur why she was scheduled on an outside court that seated just 398 spectators.

“It’s due to the rain delays and how they impact broadcast agreements which we signed off more than two months ago,” Robson whispers, as she leads me to the standing room on Court One to watch Jabeur during a break in the rain. She waits for the world No 10 to land a trademark drop shot winner, before continuing: “Ons wasn’t that happy initially, but she understood the decision once I set out the reasoning.”

Ons Jabeur – Laura Robson interview: What it is like to run a tennis tournament – when it rains
Rain caused havoc during Ons Jabeur's (pictured) quarter-final match with Karoline Plisokova in Nottingham - Getty Images/Nathan Stirk

Her job in Nottingham has given her a new-found empathy for tournament directors, even Amelie Mauresmo at Roland Garros, who was heavily criticised for failing to schedule women’s tennis into primetime evening slots at the French Open. “I haven’t asked her, but I’m sure being a former player she wouldn’t only want men’s matches on the night sessions. But you’ve got so many other factors involved, from TV, the federations, the hospitality.

Even though I would like to think I wouldn’t do it the same way, I don’t know until I’m in the situation. I think it bothered me more that the women’s matches were always in the 11am spot. You know there’s going to be a lull until people have finished their lunch, so are you giving [women’s tennis] the space it deserves? That’s a whole other conversation though…”

‘Having more strings to my bow makes me feel calmer’

Robson is used to offering her opinions on such matters, as a prominent pundit on Sky Sports and Eurosport’s tennis coverage, as well as commentating for the BBC at Wimbledon and beyond. She also has another gig managing player relations at SW19 during the upcoming fortnight.

Multitasking and stretching herself has become second nature, as she learnt better than most that Plan A does not always work out. Robson was tipped for great things as a teenager: she won the Wimbledon girls’ title aged 14 and had a memorable breakthrough at 18, beating Kim Clijsters and Li Na on her way to reaching the US Open fourth round. She also won Olympic silver in mixed doubles with Andy Murray. But her career was effectively ended by injury at 25, when she played her final match. To this day, her dodgy hip blocks her from playing much tennis recreationally.

“I’ve gone from a weird world as a tennis player, into also a weird world in media – it’s never a sure thing,” she says. “The fact I can have more strings to my bow makes me feel a lot calmer. Even if I’m crazy busy and stressed, I prefer it that way. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve got Sky, but that can go before you know it and I might never work in TV again. So if things don’t go as I’d hope, I know I’ll be fine. It’s why I sought out these roles, so I’m not relying on other people to pick me, to be honest.”

Her post-retirement career has been diverse so far, considering she is still younger than many of the players on tour. The main challenge she has found is adjusting to an office setting, in particular at the All England Club, where she admits to feeling some imposter syndrome: “Sometimes I do feel a little out of my depth. I don’t have a university degree, I was homeschooled from 11 to 16, all the important years!

It’s normal in the tennis world, but if you’re in an office and everyone’s really smart, I am still a little afraid to speak up. Even writing a very professionally sounding email, you’re really overthinking your sign-off. I wouldn’t do that if I was emailing a coach or working in TV, but because it’s Wimbledon it’s just a little bit smarter, fancier, which you would expect because the club’s got so much history. It’s that aura.”

There are moments she has felt underestimated too, being a former player or perhaps because she is a young woman. “Maybe a little bit on the player relations side at Wimbledon, more than any other job,” she says. “I’ve known so many people at the club since I was like 14, that a lot of them were like, ‘You’re still a baby’. There was a lot of that.”

Laura Robson –
Robson was thrust into the spotlight aged 14 when she won the girls' title at Wimbledon - Getty Images/Julian Finney

Did it feel like a bit of an old boys’ club when she first got involved? “Well, you’re not too far off, but not anymore. It’s changed a lot even since I became a member when I was 18 to what it is now. Female CEO, female chairwoman, female referee at the Championships this year – we’ve got the trifecta.”

She is making her way up the leadership ladder, too, but when the subject of firm career plans pops up, she groans as any 30-year-old might. “I don’t want to give anything up unless there’s a huge conflict of interest – but tennis has a huge problem with that anyway!” she laughs. “Out of everyone, I’m fine.”