The skies outside were grey, but the future of the British women's game was looking bright here in Devon yesterday in the unlikely setting of the Tarka Tennis Centre. Heather Watson, who last month became the first British girl to win the US Open junior title, and Laura Robson, last year's junior Wimbledon champion, both enhanced their growing reputations in their opening matches in the Aegon Pro-Series tournament.
Watson, 17, recorded the best victory of her senior career when she beat Mel South, the British No 4 and world No 142, 7-6, 6-2, while Robson, 15, produced a characteristically battling display before losing 6-4, 7-6 to Naomi Cavaday, the British No 5 and world No 228. Considering both faced opponents who strike the ball harder than anyone they have faced as juniors, they were performances of real promise.
Robson and Watson, No 456 and 681 respectively in the world rankings, are playing schedules that combine junior and senior tournaments. Although they aim to play in the junior Grand Slam events in 2010, Robson in particular aims to play in more senior tournaments in the next few weeks, having spent periods earlier in the year away from competition because of fitness concerns during a growth spurt.
Robson made her senior debut last year, while Watson made her bow this March. Watson won a senior tournament in Frinton in July, but until yesterday the highest ranked opponent she had beaten was the world No 461.
With no ballboys or ballgirls and only two line judges – who doubled up as scoreboard operators – this was a far cry from the scene of the British juniors' greatest triumphs. At the start of Robson's match there were 72 spectators, with the crowd reduced by a third when a party of schoolchildren left after only the third game.
Watson's greatest asset is her athleticism and she kept chasing down South's biggest shots. South, the No 2 seed, had her chances and led 4-1 in the tie-break, which she eventually lost 10-8. Watson completed her victory in style, breaking South with some excellent returns and then hitting two aces in serving out for the match.
"I'm really happy with that," Watson said afterwards. "Mel hits the ball very hard so I couldn't be too aggressive. After the US Open it's good to play and win some matches at this level."
Watson, who will team up with Robson in the doubles, is based at the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida. Her mother lives and travels with her, but she has not seen her father, who lives at the family home in Guernsey, since August. Did yesterday's win mean she had less of a chance of making a flying visit to the Channel Islands before she returns to school in Florida next week? "It does, but I think I'd rather win here than go home," she smiled.
Cavaday, 20, first came to public attention at Wimbledon two years ago, when she had two match points before losing to Martina Hingis. She broke into the world's top 200 last year, but has had problems with her fitness and has yet to live up to her potential.
Her victory was as tight as the scoreline suggested. Both players take full advantage of their powerful left-handed serves and both play an attacking baseline game. Cavaday, naturally enough, had the greater weight of shot, and rarely looked in trouble on her serve. "There's nobody I've played in juniors who hits the ball anywhere near as hard as that," Robson said afterwards. "I could have made fewer mistakes but I thought it was a solid match."Reuse content