Hodgkinson: The New British No.1
Published June 10, 2014 12:12
This summer, there's no reason for Heather Watson to be frightened of playing on English grass courts. Gone is the look of horror and apprehension that Watson wore on the lawns last year, almost as if she had been asked to compete in car parks covered in broken beer bottles. "I'm starting to find myself and my game again," Watson, who this week replaced the injured Laura Robson as the British No.1, said.
Last summer she was "scared" on the turf; this year she won't be. So Watson's back to where she should be, enjoying what she describes as her favourite part of the tennis calendar, when there's grass underfoot, the British tennis public all around, and the possibility - just the possibility - of some fine weather. The surface wasn't the issue during last year's "pretty awful" summer; her problem was glandular fever, which was draining her body and mind, to the point she turned up at last year's Wimbledon Championships devoid of any confidence in her game. No wonder she lost in the first round to America's Madison Keys. It's a very different Watson who opens her grass court swing at the Aegon Classic at the Edgbaston Priory Club; she's fit, mentally robust, back to her normal ebullient self, and talking about the possibility of making the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time.
Watson wants that to happen at this year's Wimbledon (what a contrast to last summer when her ambitions at the All England Club extended to no more than "playing OK"). "Last year's Wimbledon was pretty awful for me. I wasn't fit or healthy. I was there on court and I was playing, but I wasn't confident in myself. It was difficult but it has made me stronger for this year," Watson, who missed some tennis this season because of a shoulder problem, said in an interview with wtatennis.com. "One of my goals for this year is to reach the second week of a Grand Slam. I'm going to be keeping that in mind at the All England Club."
The hope is that this Channel Islander - she's from Guernsey - will carry on in England where she left off on the clay courts of the European Continent. In all, Watson won 11 matches in May, a run of form which brought her an ITF title in Prague, and which carried her through French Open qualifying competition and then into the second round of the main draw, where she lost to Romania's Simona Halep (and there's no shame in that). That's not the only difference between the Watson of 2013 and this summer's version. "I've been working on being more aggressive, and taking the ball on, and winning points, and not waiting for my opponent to miss. That's important for me if I want to go to that next level," said Watson, who was speaking at a Give it Your Max charity tournament as part of Statoil's 'Heroes of Tomorrow' initiative, which supports young people in sport, education and culture.
While grass isn't Watson's preferred surface - "I like them all exactly the same if that's possible" - there's no debate that she can play on it. If Watson needs any further encouragement before she arrives at Wimbledon later this month ("it's such an iconic tournament, so classic"), she only has to think back to that occasion two years ago when she defeated Iveta Benesova - now Iveta Melzer - of the Czech Republic in the first round.
That wasn't just Watson's first singles victory at the tournament; it was also the first win for a British female player on Centre Court since Jo Durie did so in 1985, some seven years before Watson was born. She won another round to make the last 32, but then she ran into Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska, an eventual finalist. If Watson, a direct entrant into this year's Championships, could replay a match from her Wimbledon history, that would be the one; she performed "terribly" and won just two games. But that scoreline against Radwanska shouldn't obscure the fact that Watson's ambition of going deep into this year's Wimbledon isn't an unrealistic one.
As Judy Murray, Watson's Fed Cup captain, remarked: "Heather is looking to do some damage at the big events again."
Mark Hodgkinson is the author of Ivan Lendl: The Man Who Made Murray (Aurum).