LONDON (Reuters) - With One Direction star Harry Styles and Prime Minister David Cameron among her growing army of fans, teenager Laura Robson is seen as “gold dust” for women’s tennis in Britain.
Robson, 19, became the most successful British woman at Wimbledon in 15 years after powering through to the second week of the prestigious tennis tournament but she lost her fourth-round match on Monday to Estonia’s Kaia Kanepi.
While Robson struggled to hold back tears leaving the court, campaigners for tennis and women’s sport praised her performance and the inspiration the British No. 1 gave female players.
The “Robson factor” has been credited for helping to double the number of young girls regularly competing in tennis in the past two years, according to the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) which is under pressure to increase participation in the sport.
“She is gold dust for women’s sport,” said Sue Tibbals, chief executive of the Women’s Sports and Fitness Foundation which aims to boost the number of women playing sport.
“She has captured the nation’s attention for her tennis and also because she is such a strong, inspiring woman. At 19 she has a great career ahead of her.”
Robson has won praise among tennis fans for her destructive forehand but she added 20,000 people to her 280,000 following on Twitter last week when heart-throb boy band member Styles declared himself to be her fan.
Cameron joined her fan bandwagon from Kazakhstan on Monday, tweeting her his best wishes ahead of her match while some of her fans lined up for two days to get tickets for Wimbledon on Monday for the chance to see her play.
“That’s unbelievable support .. I‘m so happy that they decided to come,” Robson told a news conference on Monday.
Robson was bitterly disappointed by her failure to get the win which would have made her the first British woman quarter-finalist since Jo Durie 29 years ago.
Durie, a former world number five, said Robson was under enormous pressure as the only British female near the top of the rankings and now guaranteed to break into the world’s top 30.
“Laura is out there on her own and so there is a lot of pressure on her .. but she is a great role model. She is young and with-it and people can relate to her,” Durie told Reuters.
Robson’s appeal is undeniable with a broad smile and typical teenage interests. She loves the TV show “Hannibal” and lists her hobbies as horse-riding, cooking and shopping.
“But she need to notch up some more victories to really become marketable,” said Rebecca Hopkins, managing director of sports PR agency ENS Ltd.
Robson has emerged on the scene as the LTA is under pressure from Sport England, the body that distributes taxpayers’ money to sports, to boost participation in tennis.
LTA spokesman Tom Harlow said Australian-born Robson had boosted the number of youngsters in tennis since winning silver in the doubles with Andy Murray at the 2012 Olympics. She also got through to the fourth round of last year’s U.S. Open.
The number of under-12s competing regularly has nearly doubled to 8,000 and 11- to 18-year-old LTA memberships are up 10 percent to about 112,000.
But weekly adult tennis participation, of over-16s playing for at least 30 minutes, is still down from a peak of 530,000 in 2009 although numbers rose 19 percent last year to 445,000.
“We hope that Robson’s success at Wimbledon will inspire more teenage girls to pick up a racket or stay in tennis. All sports struggle to get teenage girls playing,” Harlow said.
A group of schoolgirls on an outing to Wimbledon for the day from Burgate School in Hampshire, said Robson was their idol.
“She’s the first British female player I have ever known to do well and she’s great,” said 15-year-old Emily Bufton-Taylor.
Editing by Ed Osmond