Whilst Laura Robson might be Britain’s current tennis darling, Eevee’s Martin Whiteley explains the how her friend and rival, Heather Watson is back on the road to success and out to steal Laura’s crown…
While Serena Williams was claiming her 60th title on the (WTA) tour in Rome, a far greater battle was being won by Heather Watson in Prague. Ranked 112 coming into this (ITF) event — the tier below the WTA — Watson had to first beat the world number 98 Timea Babos, after the weather had delayed their semi final match, just to reach the championship game. Once there, Watson faced sixth seed Anna Karolína Schmiedlová — who had played most of her semi-final the day before. Despite the disadvantage, Watson defeated her opponent 7-6 6-0 to claim the title. When the new rankings came out the following day,Watson was ranked at 92, and with Laura Robson out injured (having fallen to 83) the British Number One spot may not be too far away.
Things had looked rosy for Watson when she became the first British female tennis player to claim a WTA singles title since Sara Gomer in 1988, after having won the Japan Open in November 2012. In a match that lasted a mammoth three hours and twelve minutes, Watson saved four match points before defeating Kai-Chen Chang of Chinese Taipei in three sets. The victory propelled Watson into the top fifty of the world rankings for the first time in her career, and she also regained the British Number One spot from Robson.
Starting 2013 in the top fifty meant direct entry to the first Grand Slam of the year the Australian Open, and Watson did not let that opportunity escape her. A three set opening round win against Romanian Alexandra Cadanțu advanced Watson to the second round for the first time in her career — she was not stopping there though. Trailing a set and 6-3 in the tie-break (you only need to reach 7 points to win) Watson fought her way back against her opponent Ksenia Pervak to take the tie-break 9-7 and the final set 6-2. The third round saw Watson face the number four seed Agnieszka Radwańska, but even though she was defeated easily in straight sets, her world ranking was now at career high of 40 .
For the first time in her tennis life, Watson was entering matches as the favourite and having to cope with the different pressure of being expected to win. Watson had always been the one gearing up for the challenge, now the shoe was on the other foot and she was the scalp for her opponent.
The first tournament Watson competed in after the Australian Open was the PTT Pattaya Open where she was the eighth seed. The first round opponent for Watson was Babos, and the British Number One was in complete control when the Hungarian retired through injury midway through the second set. That set up a tie with Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, and after taking the second set to level the match, Watson was thoroughly outplayed in the final set – losing 6-2. It was harsh but also an important lesson.
Watson learned from that experience and went on to help the Great Britain Federation Cup team reach a World Group II play-off tie, which included impressive victories over Babos and Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria in the all-important Euro/Africa Group I play-off.
Back on tour — seeded fourth — Watson reached the the last eight of the US Indoor Championships in Memphis, before losing to Stefanie Vogele in straight sets. When the new rankings came out Watson had moved up to a new career best of 39.
It was at this point that Watson contracted glandular fever and was out of action from February to the start of the French Open at the end of May. Injures and illness are all part and parcel of sport and life, but unlike team sports were someone takes your place, as an individual, no competition means no prize money and more importantly, no ranking points.
Now ranked number 48 – and no longer the top British player (Laura Robson was ranked at 37) Watson lost narrowly in three sets to Vogele in the first round in Paris and, when the following set of rankings were released, she had lost her top 50 place as well.
Watson defeated Melinda Czink in the first round of the Aegon Classic in Edgbaston — her first victory back on tour — but lost in straight sets in the next round to qualifier Alla Kudryavtseva. One success was also achieved at the Aegon International, with Watson overcoming Varvara Lepchenko, who had a world ranking of 27. Wimbledon saw Watson lose in the first round to Madison Keys.
Ending 2013 outside the top 100 meant Watson was back qualifying for the WTA events. With a lot of ranking points to defend from last year’s tournament, it was vital that Watson qualified for the Australian Open this year. Having achieved that, she was handed a tough first round draw against the 31st seed Daniela Hantuchova and eventually lost in three sets.
Having missed the Federation Cup play-off against Argentina last year through her illness — a tie Britain lost — Watson and Britain were back in the Europe/Africa Zone and, although her team were unsuccessful in qualification for the World Group II play-off, Watson won all four of her matches, including wins over two top 40 players Yvonne Meusburger of Austria and world number 26, Sorana Cirstea.
Watson had already won the Dow Corning Tennis Classic — ITF event in Michigan — earlier this year, defeating Ksenia Pervak, so with illness hopefully behind her and her ranking on the rise, a return to where she was a year ago is definitely on the cards.