October 15, 2012

The Year of the Brit

It's been a pretty good couple months for UK athletes. First they played host to a successful Olympic Games, winning twenty-nine gold medals in the process. Golf's golden boy Rory McIlroy won the PGA Championship and returned to the #1 ranking in the sport. And, maybe most spectacularly, their tennis stars have finally come out of the shadows and taken the spotlight.

It started with perennial also-ran Andy Murray, claiming Gold at the All England Club less than a month after being denied the Wimbledon crown. A few weeks later he ended a seventy-six year Major drought with a stunning win at the U.S. Open.

He wasn't the only Brit making waves in New York, though. Eighteen-year-old Laura Robson might have been the Cinderella story of the tournament, stopping not one, but two Grand Slam champions on her way to the fourth round -- this after teaming with Murray to capture the mixed doubles Silver in London, too. She didn't stop there, however. At a then-high rank of #74 in the world, Robson took out three seeds on the way to her first Tour final in Guangzhou, ultimately losing a hard-fought battle to Su-Wei Hsieh, but chopping another fourteen spots from her ranking.

But perhaps the greatest breakthrough came this past weekend. While Murray lost a tight final to Novak Djokovic in Shanghai, and Robson was ousted in her Osaka third round, often overlooked Heather Watson was making her own move in Japan. Just twenty herself, her previous best performance this year might have come when she took a set off Maria Sharapova in Tokyo -- the only top-thirty player she's ever beaten was Lucie Safarova back in Miami -- but she didn't let her inexperience stop her last week. After defeating sixth-seeded Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round, she sailed until reaching the championship match, stumbling a little against fellow final first-timer Kai-Chen Chang, but finally winning her first trophy in the more than three-hour match.

It wasn't a huge title -- only one player ranked higher than #20 was in the draw -- but it was enough to push Watson into the top fifty as of this week's standings. It was also the first Tour title won by a British woman in twenty-four years, a feat that might match the more headline-grabbing accomplishments of her compatriots. And as she joins the ranks of the many Brits making breakthroughs this year, she might just be ushering in a new era of athleticism in the sport, changing the face of the top ranks in the years to come.

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