When Tim Henman visited a tennis club in Guernsey 12 years ago he asked if any of the budding young players wanted to play a point against him. Plenty did, but only one, an enthusiastic eight-year-old named Heather Watson, actually won her point. Last night the former British men's No 1 and the current British women's No 1 were back on court again, this time joining forces to play in an exhibition mixed doubles match at the Statoil Masters Tennis at the Royal Albert Hall.
While the likes of Henman, John McEnroe and Pat Cash have become the perennial attractions at the veterans' event, it says much for Watson's status that the 20-year-old Briton was one of those given top billing on this evening's schedule.
The impression that the ever-bubbly Watson has come of age this year was reinforced when she was asked if she had treated herself to a reward following her historic victory in Japan two months ago, when she became the first British winner of a title on the main women's tour for 24 years. "No, not really," Watson said. "I'm saving up because I really want to get an apartment in London."
Having had a peek at One Hyde Park, the country's most expensive residential development, on her way to the Albert Hall, Watson said she was thinking of buying somewhere in a slightly less exclusive area. "I'd like somewhere within good distance of Wimbledon because it would be nice to stay at home while playing and which isn't too far from Roehampton to train," she said.
Watson flew into London from Florida, where she has been doing her winter training at the Nick Bollettieri academy, which has been her base since she was 12. She will start the final fortnight of her training block back in Florida next week before flying to New Zealand on Boxing Day for her first tournament of the new season.
Having achieved her goal of breaking into the world's top 50 this year, Watson has yet to set herself targets for 2013. "There's so much I can improve on in my game," she said. "I need to hit bigger shots. I've been working on that a lot, being more aggressive, coming to the net. I love coming to the net and volleying. I love playing doubles and I think doubles is brilliant for working on that. I think that's the good part – that I've got a lot to work on."
Although she lacks the physical strength of some of the powerful women who currently dominate the women's game, Watson takes encouragement from other examples. "Martina Hingis wasn't the biggest of girls," she said. "I don't think there's any way I can improve how much I grow, but I'm going to make up for it in other ways. That's what I've been doing, with my movement and my agility around the court. I use that and just my mental toughness."
Watson's time in Britain is limited these days, but she spent a week back in Guernsey at the end of the season. "It was so much fun," she said. "People were coming up to me and saying: 'Heather, can I shake your hand?' It was different this time but everybody there is so supportive."
Although Watson said that the success of Andy Murray and the emergence of Laura Robson had helped to keep the pressure off her, she said she had proved something to herself with her victory in Japan.
"I knew I could do it," she said. "I was just thinking to myself: 'I hadn't won a title in a while.' I think my last one was in Canada, a $50,000 ITF, and it just felt like ages ago. I really wanted a tournament win. I'm so glad I've got that. I feel like it's really pushed me on during this training block. I feel more confident. I want to bring that into next year as well."
While Robson won a Grand Slam junior title at 14, Watson has been a later developer and believes she will not reach her peak for another three or four years. "I didn't start pro tournaments as early as other girls because I was still in school," she said. "I finished when I was 18, and I was still playing junior tournaments. Before the US Open [in 2009] I didn't even know if I was going to turn pro. I thought maybe I should go to college because I wasn't getting the results I wanted."
Watson says she is still learning and thinks she will benefit from experiences such as this summer's Wimbledon, where she was beaten emphatically in the third round by Poland's Agnieszka Radwanska. "I just played awful," she recalled. "I just didn't do anything right, I tried to do way too much, and it really backfired."
Being part of the Albert Hall experience this week is all part of the learning curve. "I'd love to have a chat with all of the legends here, get to know them, get some tips," Watson said.
Heather Watson: Milestones
July 2009 Wins her first International Tennis Federation title at Frinton.
September 2009 Becomes first British winner of girls' title at US Open.
June 2010 Wins first match on main tour, beating Aleksandra Wozniak at Eastbourne.
May 2011 Becomes first British woman to win a match at French Open for 17 years.
June 2011 Breaks into world's top 100 for first time.
June 2012 Reaches third round at Wimbledon – her best performance at a Grand Slam tournament – before losing to Agnieszka Radwanska.
October 2012 Becomes first British woman for 24 years to win title on WTA tour with triumph in Osaka. Breaks into world's top 50 for first time.