Heather Watson always knew that her opening match here at the US Open would be a major challenge and the 21-year-old Briton duly fell at the first hurdle. Simona Halep has been in sparkling form of late and the Romanian fought back to beat Watson 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 in a highly competitive contest out on Court 11.
If there was disappointment for Watson at going out of the tournament, the world No 76 could take positives from her defeat. She has had a difficult year following her diagnosis with glandular fever, but this was an encouraging performance against an opponent who has claimed some major scalps of late. Watson, who struck the ball particularly well in the first two sets, was within five points of victory at one stage, but could not close out the victory.
Watson spent two months off the court after being told in March that she had glandular fever and has taken time to recover her form. She came here having won only four of the 11 matches she had played since beginning her comeback at the French Open and had to retire with a hip injury from her most recent outing, against Anna Schmiedlova in New Haven last week. Having achieved her career-best world ranking at No 39 in February, Watson has since slid back to No 76.
A former junior champion here, Watson has a soft spot for this tournament. Although both her previous appearances in the senior event also ended in first-round defeats, there had been no shame in losing to Maria Sharapova and Li Na.
Watson’s difficult year has been in strict contrast to Halep’s. The 21-year-old Romanian, who beat Marion Bartoli in Cincinnati a fortnight ago in what proved to be the Wimbledon champion’s last match before her retirement, is one of the form players on the women’s tour.
Only Serena Williams can better Halep’s tally this year of four titles, which she has won on three different surfaces. Her most recent success was last week, when she beat two top 10 opponents in Petra Kvitova and Caroline Wozniacki to win the title in New Haven. Having started the year at No 47 in the world rankings, Halep is now up to a career-best position at No 19.
Watson has always been a fine athlete, but in recent times she has pledged to add more aggression to her game. She was as good as her word as she broke to take a 2-0 lead in the opening set, punishing Halep with some bold returns of serve.
Halep levelled at 2-2, but at the end of the first set the Romanian dropped her serve twice in a row. Although Watson failed to serve out for the set at 5-3, she kept her nerve in the following game. A well-constructed point gave the Briton set point, which she converted when Halep netted a forehand.
The Romanian left the court for a lengthy toilet break at the end of the first set, but if she had been taking time to compose herself the ploy did not seem to work. When Watson saved two break points to lead 2-1, Halep hurled her racket to the floor and buried her face in her towel at the changeover.
Watson’s challenge wavered with a spate of double faults early in the second set, but after dropping her serve in the fifth game the Briton hit back immediately with a break of her own. Watson led 40-0 when she served at 4-4 only for Halep to fight back from the brink. The Briton’s sixth double fault of the set gave the Romanian the chance to serve out to level the match and she took it, converting her second set point.
Halep, who was hitting the ball with increasing confidence, quickly took charge of the deciding set, breaking twice to lead 3-0. Watson briefly rallied with a break of her own, but Halep was not to be denied and eventually served out for the match after exactly two hours.