Heather Watson: 'I've never cried in a match before, I was just feeling so down'
Illness cost her almost 100 ranking places - but now the fightback has begun
Heather Watson has grown accustomed to the razzmatazz of Flushing Meadows, to the sophisticated elegance of Wimbledon and to the chic style of Roland Garros. Here at the Tarka Tennis Centre, in windswept north Devon, the Briton has been reminded of another world, which she thought she had consigned to her past.
After the most difficult year of her career, her campaign disrupted by glandular fever, Watson is ending her season on the International Tennis Federation circuit. A step down from the main Women's Tennis Association tour on which she has competed for the past two years, it is a level at which the 21-year-old from Guernsey made her first steps as a senior.
Tournaments like this week's Aegon Pro-Series event are a far cry from the world of Grand Slam glory. The prize-money here totals less than £50,000 and there are barely 100 seats beside the main court, where one of the two line judges doubles as scoreboard operator.
"Last year I never would have thought that I would be back playing ITFs at the end of this year," Watson said. "It breaks my heart a bit."
Until illness struck her down, Watson had been on an almost permanently upward curve. Twelve months ago she became the first British woman to win a singles tournament on the WTA tour since 1988 when she lifted the title in Osaka. By this February she was British No 1, ranked No 39 in the world.
However, her subsequent results make sorry reading. Until her first tournament back on the ITF circuit last week, Watson had not won two matches in a row for eight months. Diagnosed with glandular fever in March, she returned less than three months later at the French Open but struggled throughout the summer. Clearly below par, she was spotted in a locker room at one tournament in the United States curled up in a corner fast asleep just half an hour after a defeat.
Watson failed to make the second round in nine successive tournaments. The recent Asia swing, where she had significant ranking points to defend from last year, brought particular misery. Following a first-round defeat in Osaka when defending her title, Watson tumbled from No 92 in the world to No 133. She is now the British No 3, behind both Laura Robson and Johanna Konta.
"I definitely came back too early," Watson admitted. "Physically, I didn't feel good again until the US Open. Some days I would feel a lot worse than others. I found concentrating in matches really difficult. I wasn't able to train hard because I was worried about getting sick again. Then when you lose match after match your confidence goes."
By the time Watson arrived in Poitiers for last week's ITF tournament she was almost at the end of her tether, particularly after being drawn against the talented Christina McHale in the first round. "I was so emotional before the match," Watson recalled. "I was about to cry before I went on court." When she lost the first set, the tears flowed. "I was a bit of a wreck," Watson said. "I've never cried in a match before – after, yes, but not during. I was just feeling so down. I was just thinking to myself: 'Why am I even playing if I can't win any matches?'
"But I kept it together. She played a few loose points at the beginning of the second set, I got ahead and that was all I needed." Watson won the second 7-5 and the third 6-4 at the start of what could prove to be a pivotal week. She went on to win two more matches against tough opponents before losing in the semi-finals. Playing four three-set matches and two doubles matches in the week confirmed her belief that she is over the worst of her physical difficulties.
"Last week was good for me," Watson said. "I've just enjoyed playing a lot more. It's shown that my tennis had not gone anywhere. It was all mental for me. I just had zero confidence and as each week went on it was getting worse.
"Slipping down the rankings and losing every week was just so difficult mentally. I had never gone through it before. It's definitely character-building, but it's horrible. I don't like it."
Watson parted company with her coach, Mauricio Hadad, in the summer and has yet to replace him. The Lawn Tennis Association "loaned" Jeremy Bates to travel with her, but for the last three weeks she has been joined on tour by her mother, Michelle. Watson said: "I just thought: 'I need my mum. I can't be on my own. I need somebody with me'."
Having worked so hard to build her ranking to a point where she could gain direct entry into almost any event, Watson now faces the prospect in the early part of next year of having to qualify for WTA and Grand Slam tournaments. She would need to be ranked in the world's top 108 to go straight into the Australian Open.
"It is what it is," Watson said. "I can get back up there. I've got the tennis. It's just the mental part which is now coming back, finally. I didn't think that it would take this long to get used to playing tennis matches again. I didn't think there would be a mental side to it.
"My goal after Osaka, once I saw my ranking, which was devastating, was to get into the main draw at the Australia Open. I said that to myself before every single match last week."
Watson, who beat Slovakia's Kristina Kucova 6-2, 6-1 in her opening match here last night, could not bear to look at the world rankings for three days after her early exit in Osaka. When she finally did so she took a photograph of the rankings list, which she now keeps on her phone.
"I use it to motivate myself," she said. "I'm taking a picture of the rankings each week. This week I climbed back up to No 122. I'm going to work really hard this off-season and I'm sure my tennis will come back."
She added: "I've thought to myself: 'At least it can't get any worse, because I've hardly won a match this year.' It's been a rubbish year, but the fact is that I'm still going."
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