Harriet Dart and Heather Watson crash out of Australian Open

Britain's Harriet Dart plays a backhand return to Romania's Simona Halep. Picture: Dita Alangkara/AP
Britain's Harriet Dart plays a backhand return to Romania's Simona Halep. Picture: Dita Alangkara/AP
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And then there were none. Britain’s last two representatives were summarily dismissed from Melbourne Park yesterday when Harriet Dart and Heather Watson both lost in the second round of the 
Australian Open.

Yet the manner of their defeats could not have been more different. Dart was the woman with a mountain to climb as she faced Simona Halep, the former world No 1 and reigning Wimbledon champion, and yet she gave the Romanian the runaround for the last 20 minutes of the match. She lost 6-2, 6-4 but she fought until the very last ball.

Her ranking may have suggested she was the 173rd best player in the world but the tennis she produced to frustrate Halep suggested far more maturiyt and experience.

“It was always going to be a difficult match,” said Dartwith a smile. “In the last 20 minutes I upped my level, and I will be taking those positives for the rest of the year. I did enjoy it. Can you tell?

“I gained a bit of confidence and then was able to release on my shots a bit earlier. I started to be more aggressive, winning more points, getting more errors from her.

“I gained the confidence 
and was able to release a bit earlier.”

And the more Dart did that, the more rattled Halep became. She had been 5-1 up in the second set, with one foot in the third round having barely broken sweat.

But Dart dug in, played to her strengths and the Romanian realised she had a fight on her hands.

Halep said: “Even if she doesn’t hit very strong, she has good angle. Her ball doesn’t have that much power to play against. I had to work a little bit more.

“I was very close to finish at 5-1. I was leading pretty well. But then, I don’t know what happened, I lost the focus a little bit, and she started actually to play free. She didn’t miss that much anymore.”

As for Dart’s future, Halep sees it as rosy. They way she played in those last four games showed the seasoned champion all she needed to see.

“Definitely she’s top 70, 60 in this moment,” Halep added. “For sure she’s going to improve more. I see her that she can play a very high level tennis because she’s very smart. She has a good feeling of the court, also good touching with the racket. So, yeah, I feel she can improve a lot very soon. Also the serve, I think it’s important for her to improve because it’s a little bit too slow.”

Still just 23 and still learning the ropes at this level, Dart is making rapid progress. Her introduction to the biggest of stages came in Melbourne last January when Maria Sharapova sent her packing 6-0, 6-0 in the first round.

Twelve months later and she lasted a round longer and made the world No 3 sweat 
a bit.

“It’s being able to do in the big moments,” Dart added. “To trust in myself, the way I play. I think my ground strokes are up there with top 50 level. In the last 20 minutes of the match you could see that.

“There are things I have to work on, I feel there are so many things in my game which need improving, and then things can get better. I want to maximise everything in my locker.”

British No 2 Watson, 27, was hoping to maximise everything in her locker, too, as she faced Elise Mertens, the world No 17. She had beaten the Belgian last week in Hobart but where she had been focused, fired up and flawless then, she was anything but yesterday.

In just 56 minutes, Watson was dismissed 6-3, 6-0.

“My level wasn’t there today,” a resigned Watson said afterwards. “I was letting her dictate. As the match went on, she played better and was more aggressive. I am just not happy with my performance at all.”

At least Watson’s trip down under has been worth the effort this year. Last January, she spent a month on the road and went home without a main draw win. This time, she reached the semi-finals in Hobart and the second round in Melbourne.

“Last year at this time, I would just be happy to win a single match,” she added. “So the fact that I’ve played so many here in Australia, I’m feeling good, in good spirits. I just wish I hadn’t lost today the way I lost. I wish I had at least got a bit closer in the score. But it happens.”