Watson battles back to wipe out signs of second-season syndrome


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The Independent Online

As she attempts to build on her breakthrough year of 2012, Heather Watson might prefer not to dwell for too long on the example of Ksenia Pervak, her opponent in the second round of the Australian Open here on Wednesday. The 21-year-old from Russia, who now competes under the flag of Kazakhstan, is a good example of “second-season syndrome”, having struggled last year to match her eye-catching achievements of 2011.

When Watson was trailing by a set and a break to Romania’s Alexandra Cadantu in her first-round match today, the 20-year-old from Guernsey might have wondered whether she would be following a similar path, but her fightback, which ended in a 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 victory, was a fine demonstration of her grit and determination.

Pervak and Watson last met in the quarter-finals of the 2009 junior tournament here. Pervak won in straight sets and went on to beat another Briton, Laura Robson, in the final. At that stage, Pervak was already competing regularly in senior events and by the end of 2011 was soaring up the world rankings. A year in which she won her first title on the main tour, was runner-up in another and reached the fourth round at Wimbledon saw her climb to No 37 in the world.

Now, after a less memorable 12 months, Pervak is down to No 82, having failed to win a Grand Slam match in 2012. Nevertheless, her new year has started promisingly. After knocking out Caroline Wozniacki en route to the Brisbane quarter-finals in the first week of the season, Pervak today beat Germany’s Mona Barthel 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 to record her first victory in a Grand Slam tournament since she beat Andrea Petkovic, then the world No 13, at Wimbledon two years ago.

While Pervak was sliding down the scale in 2012, Watson was travelling in the other direction, capping a year of progress by becoming the first Briton to win a title on the main tour for 24 years and breaking into the world’s top 50. However, her start to 2013 had been less than headline-grabbing: after losing in the second round at Auckland in the first week of the season to a lower-ranked opponent, Watson had to pull out of last week’s tournament in Hobart because of the recurrence of an elbow injury.

As a result of the elbow problem, Watson was serving at only 50 per cent of her normal power at the start of yesterday’s match. It was not her only physical difficulty: she felt so faint that she sent for a trainer and doctor midway through the second set and in the latter half of the match was suffering from cramp.

Watson said it was her self-belief that helped to get her through against an opponent she knew she should beat. Cadantu, a 22-year-old ranked No 91 in the world, made few mistakes in the first set, but the Romanian lacks a major weapon and started to misfire badly after having treatment on injuries to a shoulder and a foot.

“I definitely expected myself to win today,” Watson said. “I’ve had some tough draws in the past and I knew it was a big opportunity today. I didn’t want to waste it.”

Had her mindset changed since she won her first title in Osaka three months ago? “I feel a lot more confident. I believe in myself. Like this match today – I felt I should have won, and if I didn’t I would have been  extremely disappointed. I think it gives you confidence, and I’m using it to push myself more in my training, to make sure I’m working hard every day and not having a slack day.”

She added: “I just want to be more professional about what I’m eating, making sure I get enough sleep, do the right things before and after a match. They’re just small things, but they make a big difference.”

In her only previous main-draw match here, against the eventual champion Victoria Azarenka 12 months ago, Watson won only one game, but she likes the conditions in Melbourne Park. “I think the court really suits my game,” she said. “Today I think I just went about it wrong with my match tactics. I tried to be consistent against a girl that’s just going to be there all day. When I can hit the ball like I did later on, I should have been doing that in the first place.”

If Watson beats Pervak she is likely to face Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, having lost to the Pole at the same stage at Wimbledon last year. The world No 4 beat Australia’s Bojana Bobusic 7-5, 6-0 in her first match here, though she was less impressive than some of the other big names.

Maria Sharapova beat Olga Puchkova 6-0, 6-0, crushing her fellow Russian in just 55 minutes, and is on course for a third-round meeting with Venus Williams. The American was in similarly ruthless mood against Galina Voskoboeva, winning 6-1, 6-0.