Watson and Edmund get home fires burning
The paths they have each taken have been very different, but for leading British players all routes lead to only one destination come the end of June. Wimbledon starts in six days and for many of the home competitors the genteel charm of Devonshire Park here on the Sussex coast is a final stopping point en route to the grand stage of the All England Club.
Because Andy Murray, Laura Robson and Heather Watson are the only British singles players who compete regularly on the main men's and women's tours, the all too brief grass-court season is the one time of the year when the home players find strength in numbers, even if many of them have to rely on wild cards to compete alongside higher-ranked competitors from around the world.
There are two British men and four women playing singles here at this week's Aegon International, with another eight competing only in doubles. Despite the now customary delayed start to play because of a rain shower, Watson got the home contingent off to a flyer with a 6-3, 6-4 victory over the world No 27, Varvara Lepchenko of the United States. Kyle Edmund, playing in only his second tournament at this level following his Queen's debut last week, then went on to beat the big-serving Frenchman Kenny De Schepper, who stands 360 places above the 18-year-old Briton in the world rankings. "I've been training hard after the loss at Queen's, really trying to put what I could have done better from that match and make it better," Edmund said afterwards. "I've been really focusing on returning. It's just as well playing the guy I played. He's got a big serve. I just had the intent of trying to put a lot of balls into play and go from there."
Edmund, who is regarded as the outstanding British player of his generation, already holds two Grand Slam junior titles. When he added the French Open boys' doubles crown to his US Open trophy earlier this month he was the first British player to claim a title at Roland Garros for 31 years.
After a French Open without any British victories in singles, two of the best home hopes for Wimbledon are running into form at the right time. Murray's triumph in the Aegon Championships final at Queen's Club on Sunday completed a memorable return to form after the Scot missed Roland Garros with a lower back injury, while Watson's win here was her best performance since she began her comeback after glandular fever.
The win lifted Watson's spirits after a disappointing display in last week's Aegon Classic at Edgbaston. "In Birmingham I didn't play well at all, so I'm very motivated this week," Watson said. "I was mentally very up for this first-round match. I'm good friends with Varvara and it's tough to play a friend, but I was looking forward to playing her for the first time. I thought I played well today."
After an early exchange of breaks, Watson took charge after breaking to lead 4-2. "It was just two breaks in the end after those first couple of games," Watson said. "I thought I served better and moved better. I had a lot more energy. I was quicker and my reactions were a lot better today."
The three other British women playing in singles here all have decent chances in their first matches. Robson plays Ukraine's Yuliya Beygelzimer (world No 187), while Elena Baltacha, fresh from her victory in the Aegon Challenge in Nottingham on Sunday, plays the Czech Republic's Kristyna Pliskova (world No 103). Johanna Konta has the trickiest task, against the world No 44, Su-Wei Hsieh, of Chinese Taipei. James Ward begins his tournament with a challenging first round match against Bernard Tomic, though the Australian's recent off-the-court difficulties surrounding his controversial father and coach appear to have affected his form.
While five British women have been given wild cards at Wimbledon, Ward and Edmund are the only home men who have been handed a free passage into the singles draw alongside Murray. Ward, the world No 216, is the only other British man ranked in the world's top 250 in singles, which is the Lawn Tennis Association's recommended cut-off for home players.
The only other route into Wimbledon for home players is this week's qualifying tournament, which began at Roehampton yesterday and brought huge disappointment to Dan Evans, who is up to No 254 in the rankings after beating two top 100 players at Queen's last week. Evans was beaten 6-1, 3-6, 6-2 by Spain's Daniel Munoz-De La Nava. However, there were first-round victories for Jamie Baker, Alex Bogdanovic and David Rice.
Murray will again shoulder the weight of home expectations, especially after his stunning return at Queen's. The Scot will spend this week practising with his coach, Ivan Lendl, though he also plans to play an exhibition match at Hurlingham on Thursday. "The most important thing over the next week or so is just to make sure I keep improving the strength of my back and make sure there's no setbacks and just keep working hard on the rehab," Murray said.
"When Wimbledon comes round, it's all about how you play. It's very easy to say someone is in good form when they're not. A week is a long time in sport. Anything can happen. You can lose a bit of confidence, you can gain confidence. You can pick up a niggle, you can feel 110 per cent. You never know. But I'm in a good place."
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