Heather Watson has made a slow start to her grass-court season but the British No 1 finally got her campaign under way here yesterday at the Aegon International. Watson’s 7-6, 6-2 win over Varvara Lepchenko, of the United States, takes her into a second-round meeting today with the Ukrainian Elina Svitolina, the world No 17.
Watson, who also beat Lepchenko in the first round here two years ago, has been suffering with an elbow injury in recent weeks and had to delay her first appearance on grass until last week’s Aegon Classic at Edgbaston, where she lost to Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic first time out.
The first set against Lepchenko, the world No 38, was scrappy, but Watson was playing well by the end. The world No 64 has a good record here. In her six appearances at Devonshire Park she has failed to win a match only once, when she was drawn against Vera Zvonareva, then the world No 3, in the first round four years ago.
There were six breaks of serve in the first set as the momentum swayed one way and then the other. From 3-1 up Watson went 4-3 down and in the tie-break she went from 4-0 up to 4-5 down. At 5-5, however, the Briton hit an excellent backhand cross-court winner and on set point Lepchenko put a backhand wide.
At 2-2 the second set looked likely to be equally tight, but Watson won the last four games to secure victory after an hour and 40 minutes. “I just had to hang in there,” she said afterwards. “I think we both made quite a few more unforced errors than we would like, but I thought I just stayed tough.”
Svitolina should provide a tougher test but Watson said: “I’m really looking forward to playing her. I played her earlier on this year in the Fed Cup and it was a very long match. We both played great tennis. I came out on top, so hopefully I can play as well as that again.”
On a day when rain made no play possible until shortly before 4pm, Britain’s Harriet Dart was beaten 6-1, 6-3 by Dominika Cibulkova, the world No 49 and last year’s Australian Open runner-up. Cibulkova was ranked 309 places above her 18-year-old opponent, who was making her debut at tour level.
Petra Kvitova, the Wimbledon champion, pulled out of the tournament because of illness. It would have been the 25-year-old Czech’s only competitive outing before Wimbledon. The world No 2 arrived in Britain last week but has been suffering with a sore throat since Thursday. She has not played a competitive match since losing in the fourth round of the French Open more than three weeks ago.
“Of course I wanted to play some matches here, but it doesn’t really make sense to play and not be ready for Wimbledon, maybe getting more sick than I am now,” Kvitova said.
“I know that a lot of players don’t play a tournament before [Wimbledon],” she added. “I’m not the only one. I practised [on the grass last week] and I still hope that I will have a few days in London as well.”
The last men’s tournament before Wimbledon is the Aegon Open at Nottingham, where Slovenian-born Aljaz Bedene yesterday won his first match on British soil since becoming a British citizen earlier this year. The world No 74, who has been told he cannot represent Britain in the Davis Cup because he has already played in the competition for the country of his birth, beat the world No 63, Argentina’s Diego Schwartzman, 6-1, 6-7, 6-2. He next plays France’s Adrian Mannarino.
Kyle Edmund, the British No 3, was beaten in his first match since suffering an abdominal injury at the French Open last month. Edmund started well enough against Tunisia’s Malek Jaziri, who as the world No 83 is ranked 18 places higher than the Briton, but after only 12 minutes on the court the players came off because of rain. They returned 90 minutes later, after which Jaziri took command to win 7-6, 7-6.
Britain’s James Ward was leading Tim Smyczek, of the United States, 6-1, 4-5 when play was called off for the day because of rain. The winner will face Jiri Vesely, of the Czech Republic.