AS ANY major tournament winner will admit, success at the major championships involves a lot of hard luck, a great deal of talent, a generous dollop of experience – and a little luck. Alas, Heather Watson ran out of the latter yesterday.
Within the space of 72 hours, Britain’s No 1 went from being on top of the world as the newly crowned champion of Hobart – she beat Madison Brengle in the final on Saturday – to being just another first-round casualty at the Australian Open. She was beaten by Tsvetana Pironkova 6-4, 6-0 in 83 dismal minutes.
Watson knew that she was playing well, she thought she was as fit as a flea, but when Tuesday morning came around she woke up feeling lethargic and completely out of sorts. It was, as she put it delicately, no more than “girls’ things” but, even so, she was drained of energy and played as if she was wading through treacle. The timing of it was frustrating – Pironkova was beatable – and the result, as Watson put it, “sucked”.
“I just kind of woke up not feeling that great,” she said. “Just kind of bloated and weak and not that good and I feel like that today as well. Yeah, just struggled on the court to have energy and against any player here you can’t be like that. It’s tough enough when you’re fit let alone when you’re not.”
The only good news was that she was certain that her problems were not related to the glandular fever that felled her in 2013. Her doctors give her regular blood tests to make sure the virus does not resurface and Watson has not suffered from any further symptoms – yesterday was just one of those days that anyone can have – she felt lousy but still had to work and do the best she could.
“I’ve still got doubles so, hopefully, I can get some rounds in there,” she said, trying to put a positive spin on the day. “I’m playing with [Alexandra] Panova. We won a title last year. And just keep working on my game. Get some rest once we’re done here in the doubles. And then go straight back to London and get ready for Fed Cup.”
Once the disappointment has started to wane, Watson will look back on her stint in Australia with well-deserved pride. Thanks to that win in Hobart, her ranking is at an all-time high of 38 and she has a trophy to take home with her on the plane. Given that last February she was ranked 161 in the world and was just beginning the slow climb back after having glandular fever, her recovery – both physical and professional – has been impressive. The new season is only three weeks old; there is plenty for Watson to look forward to in 2015.
Watson was the first of the three Britons to exit yesterday. As is the way of things at this level, Andy Murray was the sole standard bearer by mid-afternoon but he may find that, in the future, he has company in the second and third rounds.
Kyle Edmund is learning with every match he plays. The 20-year-old world No 192 came through the qualifying competition to earn his place in the main draw (he had never managed to do that before) and once he got there, he did not look out of place. Facing Steve Johnson, an experienced American journeyman, he did what he could but it was just not quite enough to get a toehold in the match. Johnson may not have set the world alight in his years on the tour, but he knows how to put the youngsters in their place.
Even so, Johnson was impressed with Edmund’s serve and forehand and he had to stay on his toes as the young Yorkshireman tried to keep his Australian Open hopes alive until finally Johnson got his way 6-4, 6-4, 6-3. “There weren’t a lot of rallies going on, so when you did get the opportunities you needed to take them,” Edmund said. “I think I only had one break point in the match and I didn’t take it.
“Obviously to qualify, win three matches and play in the first round was a good experience. Looking back on it, it’s still a good week to take forward. On Friday or Saturday I’ll be leaving for Hong Kong to play in a Challenger there on Monday. So the process keeps going. I’ll keep trying to get better and I’ll keep looking forward.”
Even James Ward, who had his chances to beat Fernando Verdasco but failed to take them, leaves Melbourne with a spring in his step. He got into the main draw by virtue of his ranking (he is the world No 102 this week) and has been playing the best tennis of his career over the past few months. From taking the first set and almost claiming the third, Ward lost to the former world No 7 2-6, 6-0, 7-6, 6-3.
“I’m working hard,” Ward said. “I’m stronger and fitter. A few people can see that, my level’s pretty good. A lot of different people have commented on that, which is nice because you know it’s paying off. Coming in here, after a good pre-season, it was good to show what I can do.”
So Watson did not have the luck, Edmund did not have the experience but all three of Britain’s hopefuls are working hard and slowly but surely making progress. Watch this space.