Rome - Laura Robson's tennis education continues with every tournament and the 19-year-old Briton learned at first hand on Tuesday night about the sheer power of the world's best player. In losing 6-2, 6-2 to Serena Williams, however, Robson still gave a demonstration of why she has emerged as one of the game's most exciting young talents.
Having beaten Venus Williams in the first round, Robson was attempting to become only the eighth player in history to claim the scalps of the two sisters in the same tournament. While Venus is a rapidly declining force, however, Serena remains as formidable an opponent as ever.
The oldest player ever to hold the world No 1 ranking, 31-year-old Williams is on a remarkable run of form. She claimed the 50th title of her career in Madrid three days ago and has lost only four matches since last year. While she has never been at her best on clay, the American has not been beaten on the surface this year and will go to the French Open, which starts in 11 days' time, as the clear favourite.
Robson, too, is much more effective on a faster surface, where her crunching ground strikes can zip through the court. The world No 39, who is the youngest player in the world's top 50, also has much to learn about how to slide into her shots on clay, an art which helps with both control and power when you are stretched out wide. Nevertheless, it is the fact that there is so much room for improvement in Robson's game that gives real hope for the future.
Forget for a moment what Robson cannot do: there were plenty of examples, even against the world's best player, of what she can do to trouble any opponent. The Briton hit plenty of big shots from both flanks, many with clever disguise, and struck some potent serves. Having just lost four games in a row in the first set, she held to love in the next game, which she rounded off with two successive aces.
For the second day in a row, in her first appearance here, Robson was given top billing in the main stadium. Having played in fierce sunshine and a swirling wind in her first match, on this occasion she played on a cool and still evening. There was a healthy crowd in the stadium, even though some had left following Roger Federer's 6-1, 6-2 demolition of one of the local favourites, Potito Starace. There was also plenty of support for Robson.
The Briton could not have made a better start, going for her shots and breaking Williams in the opening game before the American settled into her stride. The world No 1 might have been expected to run away with the match from that moment, but Robson held firm.
However, once Williams had saved two break points at 2-2, the 15-times Grand Slam champion reeled off four games in a row to complete victory in an hour and 15 minutes. Williams created match point with a beautifully judged drop shot, upon which Robson hit her eighth double fault of the match. While the Briton needs to cut down on her double faults, it was understandable why she went for power on some of her second serves given the quality of her opponent's returns.
Two recent world No 1s went out of the women's tournament. Ana Ivanovic, who reached the semi-finals in Madrid last week and had previously lost only to Maria Sharapova on clay this year, was beaten 6-3, 2-6, 6-2 by Urszula Radwanska, the sister of Agnieszka. Caroline Wozniacki, who has not won a match in three tournaments during the European clay-court season, was beaten 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 by Serbia's Bojana Jovanovski.
Novak Djokovic began his Rome campaign with an emphatic victory over Spain's Albert Montañes. The world No 1 went a break down early in the first set but quickly restored order to win 6-2, 6-3. He next faces the winner of today's second-round meeting between Stanislas Wawrinka and Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Andy Murray plays his first match this afternoon against Spain's Marcel Granollers, while Rafael Nadal begins his quest for a seventh Rome Masters title against Italy's Fabio Fognini.