It was a match that had everything. Terrible tennis, excellent tennis, attritional tennis, error-strewn tennis. Rod Laver Arena was kept enthralled until well after midnight as Petra Kvitova and Laura Robson slugged away for three hours exactly in a manner reminiscent, albeit not in scoreline, of the infamous Isner v Mahut marathon, Robson eventually prevailing 2-6 6-3 11-9.
The world No.53, making her debut on Melbourne Park’s Centre Court, has pedigree at claiming scalps on stages. Just ask Kim Clijsters and Li Na how they felt at being upended by the British youngster in the second and third rounds respectively of last year’s US Open, one on Arthur Ashe, the other on Louis Armstrong.
But Kvitova is a different prospect, a player more similar to Robson than her former foes, a fellow big-hitter, big-server, and, crucially, left-hander.
For that reason, it almost seemed like one didn’t know what to do with the other for the first two sets. Both players took it in turns to struggle to find the court, exchanging breaks to start, holding serve, but in ugly fashion, and ramping up 92 unforced errors between them.
“She’s never someone who's going to give you a lot of rhythm because she takes the ball so early,” Robson said. “In the first set it was just too up and down. You know, you can't win a set when you're playing five unforced errors compared to every winner.”
The 2011 Wimbledon champion was the more fluid in the first set, taking it 6-2 in 38 minutes; the 2008 junior Wimbledon champion was the grittier in the second, clinging on to win it 6-3 in 48 minutes.
“It was at the start of the second set I knew that I just had to play with more consistency and with more percentage. That's what I did,” Robson said.
With the crowd ready to be lit up like an Australian bushfire given something to cheer for, it was in fact Kvitova who suddenly looked like the eighth seed she is, fist-pumping to the sky as she extended herself to a 3-0 and then 4-1 lead in the decider.
But Robson is not the same teenager who was beaten 0-6 2-6 by Jelena Jankovic on Margaret Court Arena a year ago. She has amplified her weapons, improved her footwork, but, most importantly, has the confidence in her ability.
“This year, I set my expectations a bit higher, and I'm obviously playing a lot better than I was then, so I would have been disappointed to lose today, for sure,” Robson explained.
And so the two left-handers led the tennis-watching world onsite and onscreen through a merry dance of breaks, holds, aces and double faults. There was even an almost-decapitation of a poor ball kid.
Their level improving with every game, Robson might have thought her moment had sailed down the Yarra when she was broken serving for the match at 6-5. But it did not show. Producing a poise that players twice her age would yearn for, Robson successfully served to stay in the match four times, putting the pressure back on an increasingly hot and bothered Kvitova.
With eruptions over line calls and balls flying beyond the baseline, the double faults and aces mounted as the clock hands wound past midnight. But it was Robson that looked the calmer. And when her moment came again, she grabbed it. Two forehand winners gave her the crucial break; an ace and three errors from her opponent gave her the match.
The crowd were on their feet as Robson grinned from ear to ear, a third Grand Slam champion felled. It was an ugly, gutsy performance that proved that tennis doesn’t necessarily have to be perfect to be compelling.
“I thought today was pretty ugly, but in terms of how tough it was to close it out in the end, I think it's right up there with one of the best wins,” she said.
“I think some matches you just lose the belief a little bit, but this one I felt like I could always win.”
Robson’s reward is a second Grand Slam third round, this time against Sloane Stephens, the American star on the rise, and one whom the British No.2 is bound to come up against a great deal in the future. The pair met in Hobart last week, a testy two-setter that Stephens sneaked. Robson will need every ounce of the resolve she displayed on Thursday night to reverse the result.
“I definitely feel like I could play a lot better than I did last week, and it's going to be really tough, for sure,” Robson said.
“She's in good form at the moment. She's a good mover, good ball striker. It's always going to be a tough match, but hopefully I can play better than I did today.”
But for now, as she puts her head on her pillow way past her bedtime, she can congratulate herself on a job not beautifully done, but done all the same.