THE names had been changed but the script was the same. For Elena Baltacha on Thursday read Heather Watson yesterday: a British player up against a leading seed, and in grave danger of being defeated without winning a single game.
There was a minor difference. Baltacha lost her first ten games against defending champion Petra Kvitova before getting off the mark, whereas Watson needed only nine against No 3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska. That fact apart, the world No 103’s 6-0, 6-2 defeat by the Pole was another stark reminder that while British women’s tennis has improved over the past few years, it still has a long way to go.
Compared to the men’s game, it is pretty healthy. None of our current crop of female players is anywhere close to emulating Andy Murray and being a contender at the top of the sport, but there is at least a small group who are steadily getting better. Watson, Baltacha, Laura Robson and Anne Keothavong are all in or around the top 100, and have generated enough internal competition to ensure heightened standards.
But compared to what previous generations of British women did, the current crop have a long way to go. Never mind harbouring hopes of winning Grand Slams like Virginia Wade and Sue Barker did four decades ago: at present, even getting to the fourth round of a major would represent progress.
By reaching the third round, Watson equalled Baltacha’s feat of a decade ago. Not since 1998, when Sam Smith made it into the last 16, has anyone gone further.
The problem at present is that each of our leading players has some commendable qualities but lacks a complete game. Robson, for example, is technically accomplished with exquisite timing, but lacks the terrier-like tenacity which Watson brings to her game. Watson, for her part, can battle and scuttle and run all day, but often seems to lack Robson’s self-possession.
It is a comparable situation to Scotland scrum-halves Chris Cusiter and Mike Blair. Put the two of them together and you would have a truly well-rounded player. On their own, you are never quite sure which one is likely to serve you better.
The real problem for Watson yesterday under the closed roof of Centre Court was her inability to get that battling side of her game up and running. Defiance alone would never have been enough against a player of Radwanska’s ability, but the 20-year-old from Guernsey did not even have that during an opening set in which she could take no more than a handful of points.
The opening game was decent from Watson’s point of view, as she at least asked some questions of Radwanska’s serve, but once she had to serve herself the nerves became apparent. Her scrambled defence was decent and she returned well at times, but when called upon to impose herself on rallies she was unable to respond.
In the second, Radwanska had to save a break point before going 3-0 up, which was the harbinger of a slight improvement by the Channel Islander. Watson broke her duck in the next game, and she won the sixth as well after an easy hold for Radwanska. But the end was no more than mildly delayed, and the Pole wrapped up the match in just under an hour.
The only thing you can do when on the receiving end of such a harsh lesson is plan to learn from it, and Watson said she was sure to do that. “It’s a great learning experience for me,” she said. “I’ve learnt a lot today. I’m going to come back stronger and improve from this.
“The main thing is gaining experience and playing these top players, playing them more often.
“That’s what I’m doing now, which is definitely helping.” Watson’s promise has been evident since before she won the US Junior Open in 2009, while Robson, who is two years younger, won Junior Wimbledon in 2008. However, while both are still young, they are not that much younger than those top players of whom Watson spoke. Radwanska, the world No 3, is 23; second seed Victoria Azarenka is 22.
The elimination of Watson leaves Andy Murray as the sole remaining Briton in the singles, but a number, including Watson herself, are still involved in the doubles. She and fellow-Briton Ross Hutchins beat Daniela Hantuchova and Filip Polasek of 6-4, 6-3.
Robson and Dominic Inglot also won in two sets, 7-6, 6-4, against Scott Lipsky and Natalie Grandin. And Ken Skupski and Melanie South won their first-round mixed doubles match in two tiebreak sets, getting the better of Jamie Murray’s partner Eric Butorac and Varvara Lepchencko. However, the elder Murray and the American Butorac had earlier lost their second-round men’s doubles 3-6, 6-7, 4-6 to French pairing Arnaud Clement and Michael Llodra. Keothavong and Jonathan Marray also lost, being beaten 6-4, 6-4 by Paul Hanley of Australia and Alla Kudryavtseva of Russia.
Jamie Murray and his partner Paola Suarez later withdrew from the mixed doubles with the Referees’ Office declining to give a reason.
The surprise of the day in the men’s doubles was the elimination of top seeds Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor.
The Belarussian and his Canadian partner were defeated in straight sets by Daniele Bracciali of Italy and Julian Knowle of Austria.