ACAPULCO, Mexico -- Heather Watson of Great Britain claimed her first WTA singles title since 2016 in a marathon Saturday evening encounter, as the No.7 seed grinded out a 6-4, 6-7(8), 6-1 victory over Canadian teenager Leylah Fernandez to earn the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC singles championship.
"I'm so happy to get my fourth title," Watson said to the press, after her win. "It’s been a few years, so I’m just really, really happy I came through that match."
Watson saw her first five championship points in the second-set tiebreak slip away, but the Brit regrouped right away in the third set before converting her whopping 10th championship point to collect the fourth WTA singles title of her career. The match consisted of two hours and 46 minutes of gripping action, as Watson improved her record against Fernandez to 3-0.
"It was so up and down," said Watson. "I had those [match] points in the second set, and I wasn’t able to win that, but I was really pleased with how I stayed in the moment, and won that third set."
British No.2 Watson’s most recent title also came in Mexico, at Monterrey in 2016. Her other career WTA singles titles were at Osaka in 2012 and Hobart in 2015 -- all four of Watson’s titles have come on hardcourt.
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Watson, the first player from Great Britain to reach the Acapulco final and win the title, is now projected to re-enter the Top 50 of the WTA singles rankings, up from her current ranking of No.69. This edges her closer to her career-high ranking of No.38, which she obtained following her title run at Hobart in January of 2015.
Nevertheless, it was still an incredible breakthrough week for 17-year-old qualifier Fernandez. The World No.190 reached her first WTA quarterfinal, semifinal, and final this week, and is projected to move up at least 60 spots in the WTA singles rankings.
"I’ve played Leylah two times before this, and I knew what to expect," said Watson. "She’s a great player, and it would be really tough because the two matches before that had been really tough. The thing I notice about her the most is the head on her shoulders. She’s very, very mature for her age."
"I think it’s her mental toughness that really stands out," Watson continued. "I think she’s going to have a great career ahead of her and rise up the rankings very quickly if she keeps playing like this."
Aggressive play by the Brit pulled her to an early double-break lead, racing to 3-0 over the Canadian. Watson then saved a break point with a backhand winner down the line en route to another service hold and a commanding 4-0 lead.
Fernandez got on the board in the next game, punctuating a hold for 4-1 with a forehand crosscourt winner as her own groundstrokes started to find their targets. But Watson continued her run, holding for 5-1 with a game that began and ended with aces.
The Canadian teenager finally put a series of games together, cracking a backhand winner square on the sideline to earn her first break at 5-2, when the Brit served for the set for a first time. Watson, though, had more success the second time around at 5-4, drawing missed returns with solid serves, and clinching the one-set lead on her first set point.
Watson took an early lead in the second set as well, breaking Fernandez handily in the opening game. Serving at 2-1, Watson zipped to a 40-0 lead, but, suddenly, Fernandez began to find winners down the line on numerous opportunities, and the teenager gritted her way to a break, leveling the set at 2-2.
From that point forward, Fernandez and Watson found themselves in a evenly matched battle for the set. At 4-4, Watson held two break points, and converting either one would have allowed her to serve for the match. But missed returns on both let Fernandez grind her way to another tough hold, and the Canadian went up 5-4.
In the next game, it would be Watson’s turn to wriggle out of danger, when a wild double fault gave Fernandez two set points, but aggressive play by the Brit saved both as she held for 5-5. The pattern repeated two games later, when Fernandez held two more set points, but, once again, sturdy hitting by Watson pulled her to a hold, queuing up a crucial tiebreak.
Watson raced far ahead in the breaker, firing an ace to reach 5-2. A superb forehand passing winner then gave the Brit a 6-2 lead and four championship points, which was a far cry from staring down four set points just minutes before.
However, Fernandez chipped away at that lead, drawing errors from the Brit, and the Canadian saved all four match points. A fifth set point and a fifth match point, respectively, came and went as the tiebreak hit 8-8. At last, Fernandez claimed a sixth set point at 9-8 with a divine backhand winner into the corner, and she stunningly converted the set after a Watson forehand went long.
"It was heartbreaking losing the second set," Watson admitted. "But I also reminded myself that I also saved a lot of set points before that. It was so close, both of us had our chances."
"I just had to leave that set behind me, even though I had my opportunities, and just remind myself that it’s just a tennis match and it won’t be the end of the world if I don’t win," Watson added. "Just play every point, and focus on just that one point, that next point."
Watson, to her credit, bounced right back after the disappointment of missing those chances in the second set. The Brit crushed a forehand winner down the line to bring up a break point for 2-0, then converted that chance after Fernandez missed a rally backhand into the net.
A backhand passing winner gave Watson a love break for a 5-1 lead, putting herself in control. Fernandez had one last incredible game up her sleeve, saving four more championship points and reaching break point with a dropshot winner, but Watson saved that, then fired an ace to bring up a tenth match point. That was converted with a forehand winner, and Watson was a titlist once more.