HEATHER Watson was in tears. The normally bubbly, cheery 21-year-old who usually takes defeat in her stride, learns from it and moves on, could not control her emotions any longer.
She had just lost 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 to Simona Halep, the world No19, in the first round of the US Open and it was almost too much to bear. She had played well – better than she had in months – and for two sets, she had the match in her grasp but slowly but surely, her body began to seize up and Halep, one of the form players coming into the Open, reeled her in. Halep has been making a habit of that of late and in the past couple of weeks has beaten Sam Stosur, Caroline Wozniacki and Petra Kvitova – not that that fact made Watson feel any better.
“I thought I played better than I have been,” she said, looking red-eyed. “I was playing one of the hottest players on the tour right now – she’s playing well – she made a lot of balls. I thought I played a good two sets and the third set, my fitness let me down a bit. I was cramping in my legs and that I think partly was because in the first two sets I was a bit tight and not relaxed. I had my chances definitely, and I had an opportunity to win that match in two sets, I’d say, but she’s got the confidence and she won the points when it mattered.”
In March, Watson, then the world No39 (she is now down to No76) and Britain’s top player, could not work out why she was running out of energy and focus during matches and decided she needed a break; she thought she was burned out. Then the doctors told her she was suffering from glandular fever and after seven weeks at home sleeping and resting, she got back to work in time for the French Open. But the virus is still lingering in her system and there are still good days and bad days, days when she can work and fight flat out and days when she is as weak as a kitten.
Tuesday was a good day – she ran and fought for two hours – but with only 12 matches behind her since her comeback, she was not sharp enough to close out the important points and, by the third set, she could do no more. A set to the good and standing at 4-4 and 40-0 in the second set, Watson was on the verge of taking complete control of the match – all she had to do was hold serve and then Halep would be fighting to stay in the tournament. But she could not do it, Halep broke her and the wind went out of Watson’s sails.
“I knew she wouldn’t give it to me and she didn’t,” Watson said, trying her very best not to cry and failing miserably. “She made all the returns, didn’t give me any free points, but also I didn’t make a first serve, I don’t think, on any of those game points.
“I think she played a lot better in the important points and that game was extremely important and I think once I get a few matches under my belt, I’ll learn how to play those points smarter and take my time. I think that’s why it hurts a lot because I was so close, but if I keep making those opportunities for myself, I’ll take some.”
Watson does not have a coach at the moment and has borrowed the services of Jeremy Bates from the LTA in the interim. They have been travelling together for the past month during which time he has been encouraging her to be more aggressive on court and, on the evidence of Tuesday’s match, she is taking his advice to heart. She is working as hard as she can off-court to get back to her physical peak but, until she has recovered fully from the glandular fever, frustrating and disappointing days like Tuesday are going to haunt her for months to come.
Meanwhile, Li Na and Agnieszka Radwanska beat the rain at a stormy Flushing Meadows last night to reach the second round. Third seed Radwanska had a tough second set against Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor but came through 6-0, 7-5 while fifth seed Li defeated Sweden’s Sofia Arvidsson 6-2, 6-2.
Dark clouds were gathering before the pair were off court, and not long afterwards play was suspended because of the threat of lightning. Soon, heavy rain was falling, and organisers announced there would be no play before 2.30pm local time (7.30pm BST).
Li said: “I was so lucky before the rain came that I finished the match so I don’t have to wait and warm up and come to the court again. It is tough for (everyone else). For me, I’ll just relax for the rest of the day and do whatever I want to do.”
Li could play 30th seed Laura Robson in the third round in a repeat of last year’s clash at the same stage, which was won by the British teenager. Robson was just about to start her clash with France’s Caroline Garcia when play was stopped.