It HAS taken Heather Watson two years to get back to where she believes she belongs, two years of frustration, illness, recovery and comebacks. But now, as the new champion of Hobart and with a career-high ranking of No 38 in the world, she is flying high again – and she thinks her success is due in no small part to one Andy Murray.
The two teamed up at the Hopman Cup, a mixed team, exhibition event, at the start of the month and came within a whisker of reaching the final. From there, and after having watched Murray go about his work for a week, she headed for Tasmania and ripped through the draw to win the second trophy of her career.
“I loved getting to know Andy better and play doubles with him,” Watson said. “I didn’t ask too many questions, I didn’t want to be nosey, but just watching him, how he goes about his career, does his fitness, practice on court, he’s so professional, and also doubles, seeing his attitude towards every point, it’s just amazing. I think that really helped me for this week.”
Back in 2013, Watson came to the Australian Open with huge expectations. She was ranked No 49 in the world, had won the title in Osaka just a couple of months before and she was making her move to the top.
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Within a couple of months, her life was turned on its head. She was diagnosed with glandular fever and had to take three months off. Exhausted, frail and unable to train – some days she could barely get out of bed – she could only watch as her ranking tumbled to around the 160 mark. Two years on and fully fit again, she is ready to live up to the promise and potential she showed as a teenager and her life has come full circle. Tomorrow she faces Tsvetana Pironkova, in the opening round at Melbourne Park and should she win (their head-to-head record stands at two wins apiece) she ought to play Dominika Cibulkova, last year’s beaten finalist. Life is really looking up again.
“I feel better than I was in 2013,” she said. “I feel more experienced. I’ve been through different things in my life and I have matured and I really feel confident in myself and that I belong here.
“It was very difficult to deal with the glandular fever because I’m so lively and energetic. And when I didn’t know, I thought ‘am I going crazy?’ ‘am I going soft?’ ‘what’s wrong with me?’. So when I was diagnosed, it was a relief but it really sucked at the time but now, because of where I am – and I’m in a good place now – looking back, I’m grateful for those experiences. At the time, I couldn’t see it but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Thanks to her work with Diego Veronelli, the Argentine coach she appointed last season, Watson is a more attacking player than before. Her aggression coupled with her natural athleticism has given her a new range of options on the court and the more she takes on the big names – she beat Sloane Stephens on her way to the Hobart title – the more she believes that anyone is there for the taking. The Australian open draw may look tough but anything is possible in Watson’s world.
“In the women’s game you see big players can get knocked out early in tournaments,” Watson said, looking on the coming rounds with optimism. “I find there’s a big group, and there’s very little that separates the top girls. Obviously the great players just have that mental edge and confidence that some other lower-ranked players won’t have. I’d say the top ten are different but outside them, anyone can beat anyone. I have played Pironkova a few times. She likes playing in Australia and she’s not an easy opponent. She knows how to win matches against good players.
“I’d say I’m more confident this year. I’m always excited at slams – maybe I get too excited – but I feel more confident.”
James Ward is feeling confident, too, even if Ward has to play his friend and the former world No 7 Fernando Verdasco tomorrow. Ward earned his place in the main draw by reaching his highest ever ranking – No 101 – a couple of weeks ago and while that has given his self-esteem a boost, he knows he will have his work cut out against the Spaniard.
“He’s a good friend of mine and I’ve seen him playing a lot over the years,” Ward said. “It’ll be a tough match, we both know that, so we’ll see how it goes.
“I like playing lefties, though, so it’s a match I’m looking forward to. He has a good record here, he’s made the semis before and everyone remembers that match against Nadal that went to five sets [in 2009].
“It’s been great, a really good practice week. If everyone concentrates on themselves, if you do your own thing, it all takes care of itself. All the Brits are doing well, results are going forward and it’s good to get a little bit of positive press.”
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