HEATHER Watson is fitter than ever and playing with a new-found tactical intelligence thanks to coach Diego Veronelli, whom she appointed at the end of last year. Even so, the Briton found No 9 Angelique Kerber too strong for her yesterday, and despite a rousing recovery in the second set lost her second-round match 6-2, 5-7, 6-1.
Apart from the long spell last year in which she was suffering from the after-effects of glandular fever, Watson has always brought a lot of energy to her game. Her scrambled defence, in particular, has been a real strength, and her independent, fighting spirit contrasts with many of her compatriots who have gone through the Lawn Tennis Association’s programme.
Watson herself joined the IMG Academy at a young age, and in her post-match press conference felt she had to agree with the reported comments of Julien Hoferlin, the coach of Britain’s Dan Evans. Hoferlin, who will leave the LTA in August after six years, said that British players were “too spoiled”.
“I understand where he’s coming from,” Watson said. “I see it with some players more than others. You know, we are a strong, rich federation.
“I see some not working week in, week out, kind of choosing when they want to work. Not just the players, but I think the coaches let them slip, let them get away with it. Nothing is said if they just don’t want to play that week or don’t want to give it. I don’t think it’s all the players. I think it’s coaches, too. But I do see where he’s coming from with some players.”
While her own commitment has never been in doubt, at times Watson has relied too much on defence, failing to realise when she should go on the offensive in a rally, or even in a match. Veronelli has changed that, producing a more versatile and astute player, as was seen last month when she won the Sparta Prague Open, beating three top-100 players to do so.
But Kerber is more highly ranked than any of that trio, and she showed why yesterday by getting on top from the start. Broken in the opening game, Watson lost the first set in just 26 minutes, getting in only 50 per cent of her first serves.
The second set was a lot better from the Guernsey-born player’s point of view, especially when she immediately battled back from being broken in the fifth game. Had she gone 4-2 down then she would surely have gone on to lose in straight sets, but she hit back for 3-3. Two more breaks followed, and Watson had to save four break points in the ninth game to move 5-4 ahead. When she took the set, the match looked to be back in the balance, but Kerber had other ideas, racing into a commanding lead in the decider.
Watson felt that the third set had been closer than the score might have suggested, but was particularly disappointed that she had left herself too much to do after her poor start. “When I walked off the court I was very upset,” she said. “I started very poorly. A lot of unforced errors. Didn’t serve very well. The set kind of went just very quickly. The second set I kept fighting through. I found my way. I think from both of us there was some unbelievable tennis. I managed to take that second set and was very pleased with how I was playing – I thought I played very well.
“Then in the third set I felt I was still playing well, but I didn’t take my chances. I had a lot of game points. They were still close. Just missing some easy balls. You can’t do that against a player like her.”
With Laura Robson out of action because of injury, Watson is the undisputed British No 1 in the women’s rankings – a position she is happy to have. “I enjoy it and I want to be up there,” she added. “I want to be the best. I want to be the person that everybody is rooting for; that they have their hopes on. It means that I’m a very good player and getting up in the rankings. That’s what I want to keep doing.
“I just don’t want to lose in the second round. I want to get further and beat these top players. I can’t hope for a good draw – I’ve just got to make it happen.”
Kerber now plays last year’s semi-finalist Kirsten Flipkens in the third round. “I’m confident,” the 26-year-old from Bremen said. “I played good matches the last few weeks. I’m going my own way and try to be not so nervous. But, of course, you are always nervous here. But you go out there, try your best – I think that counts at the end.”