When the 256 singles players take to the court for their first matches here at the French Open this week it is a fair bet that nobody will have a bigger smile on their face than Heather Watson. The 21-year-old Briton will be making her first appearance for more than two months, but after suffering with glandular fever she is grateful just to have the chance to play again so soon.
Glandular fever ended the career of Mario Ancic, who was world No 7 as recently as 2006, while former world No 4 Robin Soderling has not played since his diagnosis three years ago. "I was very worried, but I'm lucky," a relieved Watson said here yesterday. "I've been able to recover quickly. When I was diagnosed my doctor said we wouldn't know how long it would last."
Watson believes that she may have fallen ill as long ago as December. Although she reached the third round at the Australian Open in January and won two matches in Memphis in February, she was struggling physically. After first-round defeats in Indian Wells and Miami in March, Watson had blood tests which revealed the problem to be more serious than first thought.
"It was so much of a relief because I'd had it for months before, yet I had no idea why I was so tired and all these things were happening to me," Watson said. "In Australia I was cramping after four or five games and that was just not normal.
"I had all these fevers and a terrible sore throat. I was at the point where I was like, 'What is wrong with me?' Usually I don't like complaining about things. I thought I was being soft, being lazy. Then when I found out I was like, 'I knew there was something'."
Watson, who has been based at Nick Bollettieri's academy in Florida since the age of 12, was told to rest and went home to Guernsey. "For the first five or six weeks I couldn't do anything," she said. "I was just so exhausted. I was at home all day watching TV and sleeping.
"Some days I felt awful and I couldn't even get out of bed. And then towards the end, as I started feeling better, I tried to go for a longer walk. And as I started feeling better I went to see some of my friends and had a bit of a social life.
"To start with I couldn't even go for a 20-minute walk without being zonked out and sleeping the rest of the day. I was so tired. Now I'm playing properly twice a day and I feel good.
"This is the end of my third week practising. In the first week I did an hour a day on court and that was it. In the second week I did two sessions one day, one the next. I've been building up from there. This week I've added gym on to that."
Watson, who has a winnable match against Switzerland's Stefanie Vögele in the first round, said she now feels "about 90 to 95 per cent". She added: "I'm happy to be back. When I was packing my stuff and getting ready to live out of a suitcase again, it was a nice feeling. I put my tennis bag on my back and had a smile to myself."
Regaining the British No 1 ranking from Laura Robson will be one target. While Watson has slipped to No 50 in the world during her absence, Robson is up to No 35. "Even though I'm not looking at my ranking and am focusing on myself, I still want to go out and win matches and do well," Watson said. "I'm not going to use the illness as an excuse. I wouldn't have come here if I wasn't ready."
The future of Roland Garros
The French tennis federation yesterday revealed details of their plans for the redevelopment of Roland Garros, but there are major hurdles to overcome before work can begin, writes Paul Newman. The plans involve expanding into adjoining botanical gardens, but earlier this year a tribunal found in favour of environmentalists campaigning against the proposals.
Roland Garros is in a superb location on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, but at 21 acres it is the smallest of the Grand Slam venues, half the size of the sites at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The federation have plans to expand the site by 60 per cent and want to build a new 5,000-seat stadium and training centre as well as a retractable roof over Philippe Chatrier Court, the main arena.
The plans, which will cost around £290 million, are more ambitious than those announced recently by Wimbledon, but officials are keen to emphasise their environmental credentials. Gilbert Ysern, the tournament director, said: "We will have almost 1.5 hectares more of green space. We will have 600 more trees than today."
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