LAURA Robson is a hunted woman. It is not the fact that she has been drawn to play Caroline Wozniacki in the first round of the French Open that has pinned the target to her chest, it is the fact that she has tiptoed to the top of the domestic pecking order while both Elena Baltacha and Heather Watson were away on sick leave.
This week, both former British No.1s will be on the comeback trail at Roland Garros and the first major goal for both of them is to reclaim bragging rights at home. For Watson, who was the best of British until she was felled by glandular fever in March, she is within touching distance of Robson (she is ranked No.50, Robson is No.35) but for Baltacha, the gap is huge: she is currently No.234 and is hoping to crack the top 200 in the next couple of weeks. No matter, both women are raring to go, their appetites for hard work and competition whetted by months away from the tour.
“I don’t want to settle for No.2, so I’m always going to try to be British No.1,” Watson said. “And, you know what, I haven’t looked at the rankings the whole time. I don’t even know what my ranking is now and I don’t think I’m going to look at it for the next couple of weeks because I’m just focusing on getting better, getting my game back.”
The usually bubbly and lively Watson had been struggling for months with a dwindling supply of energy and regular bouts of fever and a sore throat. Not one to complain, she plodded on until she got to the Sony Open in March. At the end of a first-round loss there, she felt as if she had been run over by a truck – something had to be done. A simple blood test revealed the truth – glandular fever – but, while that came as a relief, the thought that the same illness had ended the career of Mario Ancic and has kept Robin Soderling away from the tour for the best part of three years did little to quell her fears.
“It was so much of a relief because I’d had it for months before,” she explained. “I had no idea why I was so tired and all these things were happening to me. When I found out I was like, I knew there was something, I was right! I was so worried because I know quite a lot of people who have had it and even people now on Tour are getting it. It’s quite common. I’ve known people to be out for years. Soderling is still out with it. Ancic finished with it, so I was very worried, I was ‘ooh no’ but yeah, I’m lucky I’ve been able to recover quick.”
Whether she has recovered sufficiently to beat Stefanie Vögele, the world No.58 from Switzerland, she can only wonder. But at least she is training at full pelt again and that is all that matters at the moment. Watson cannot rush her comeback for fear of a relapse, but she is feeling better, the doctors are pleased with her progress and she can just focus on playing matches again.
Baltacha, by contrast, has played five tournaments this year already and, even if clay is her least favourite surface and the unseasonably cold weather in Paris is not helping with her recovery from ankle surgery, she is delighted to be back. She was out on the practice courts at 8am the other day, warming up in a Puffa jacket, while Nino Severino, her coach, shivered in a woolly hat and thick gloves. Even so, it was grand to be back.
“I want my No.1 spot back, big time,” Baltacha said. “Laura and Heather are in a different place. They are just starting their career where I’m kind of towards the end – obviously I’m going to play for another two, three, four years – but for them it’s more of a long-term thing. But I think it’s a brilliant challenge. Realistically, I don’t know if it’s possible or not but who’s to say – with a big heart and working hard, you just don’t know. With the team I’ve got now, Nino’s my main coach and he’s managed to bring Louis Cayer in and he’s really helped me a lot. The guy is just a genius, there’s no other word for it. You look at his record and he’s changed a lot of players’ careers. I feel I know what I’m doing more on the court now and with Nino’s support, too, on the mental side, it’s been brilliant.”
When Baltacha waved goodbye to the Olympics last summer, she truly believed that it was the end of her career. She knew she needed surgery to correct a long-term problem with her ankle and the thought of months of rehab followed by a comeback was just too much. She was done with tennis. That feeling lasted fully one month and Baltacha knew that she was not ready to retire just yet. She plays Marina Erakovic in the first round – a winnable match if all goes well.
But it is the current British No.1 who will be the focus of attention. Taking on former world No.1 Wozniacki sounds like a tall order but Robson loves the big stage and she rises to the challenge of taking on the top women. And Wozniacki is having a nightmare of a clay court season – played six, lost four, this year.
“She is not having the best clay-court season but she is a great player,” Watson said as she pondered her friend and rival’s prospects. “She’s been No.1 in the world so you can never count that out. Laura, I think, at the grand slams, she just really steps up and she absolutely loves playing the big names and does really well against them. It could be very interesting. I couldn’t say who would win it. It’s definitely winnable, 100 per cent. I’d be interested to see that match.”
And, at the merest hint of weakness, both Watson and Baltacha will be ready to make their move. The fight for domestic bragging rights will begin in earnest this week at Roland Garros.