When Heather Watson was resting in Guernsey three months ago following her diagnosis with glandular fever, one thought dominated her mind. “I wasn’t feeling well and I was stressing a bit,” she recalled. “I was saying to my Dad: ‘I need to play Wimbledon, I need to play the grass-court season, I can’t miss it.’ He said: ‘Listen, you have got to get well first. You can’t be thinking about that.’ But I’m here and I’m playing. I’m so grateful and thankful.”
Glandular fever has ended the careers of some players – Mario Ancic was never the same again and Robin Soderling has not picked up a racket in anger for three years – but Watson has made a remarkable recovery. After only two months off the court she returned to competition at the French Open and recorded her best win since her comeback when she beat Varvara Lepchenko, the world No 27, in Eastbourne this week. She is still taking care not to push herself too hard, but the spring is back in her step and the warmest smile in tennis is back on her face.
If there was an upside to Watson’s illness it was the chance to spend her longest period at home since she signed up to Nick Bollettieri’s academy in Florida when she was just 12. Not that the world No 57 has regretted for one moment her decision to base herself in the United States.
A bubbly and outgoing personality, Watson has found the camaraderie and work ethic of Bradenton the perfect environment in which to develop her game. “I like the way of life too,” she said. “It’s so laid-back. There’s not lots of traffic and the weather’s great, though it can get super-hot in the summer, when you have to change your clothes about four times in a one-hour practice session.”
When Watson appointed a new coach two years ago it was no surprise that she turned to Mauricio Hadad, who worked at the academy from her earliest days there.
“He’s very calm,” Watson said. “I don’t think I deal well with people who are in my face shouting at me. Some people thrive on that, but not me. Mauricio is very strong and he’ll tell me if I need to be told, but it’s not constant like some coaches are. I think we’re on the same wavelength.”
Bollettieri also keeps a close eye on Watson. “Nick is very different because he’ll tell you straight,” Watson said. “That’s good – though I’m not sure I could cope with that all the time! Every time before a session with him he gives me a little talk. It’s like he’s rehearsed it a thousand times, but he hasn’t. He’s so natural at it. Whatever he says is inspiring.”
Although Watson would like to buy her own place in London she expects to have Bradenton as her US base for the rest of her career. “The facilities are excellent and it’s a brilliant pace to train,” she said. “I love the atmosphere. I like the fact that you’re training around so many different people.
“I was training in the gym recently next to some American football players, who were getting ready for whatever they’re doing. It pushes me and motivates me. And there’s never a shortage of players to hit with. I don’t just hit with girls. I also hit with guys of all standards.”
Watson might never have chosen Florida but for a chance meeting with another British girl, Nicola Reynolds, when they were both visiting the academy when they were 11. “I remember bumping into her when I came out of the admissions office,” Watson recalled. “She said: ‘Are you going to come here?’ I said: ‘I don’t know. Are you?’ So we both said: ‘If you go, I’ll go.’
“That’s what made my mind up and we’ve been best friends ever since, though she doesn’t play tennis any more. She’s taken a cooking course and is really into cooking now. She lives in Portugal at Estoril, so I always stay with her when I play the tournament there.”
Watson, who went to school in Bradenton, lives with her mother in a house next to the academy. “I’m on the road a lot of the time so it’s nice to come home to family,” she said. “Mum likes spending her time in Florida because she prefers to be in the sun. She’s been playing a lot of tennis, too.
“I actually do most of the cooking. Honey-glazed chicken is one of my specialities. I enjoy cooking, though there are some days when I just can’t be bothered because I’m too tired after training and I just want some food on the table.”
Buying her own property has become possible thanks to her blossoming career. Watson won about £200,000 in prize money last year, when she won her first title on the main tour, and is in demand with sponsors. Her latest round of media interviews was geared around promotion of her racket, the Dunlop Biomimetic M3.0.
The next fortnight, however, will be more about glory than cash. Watson loves playing at Wimbledon and cherishes her memories from last year, when she became the first British woman to win a match on Centre Court for 27 years and the first to reach the third round at the All England Club for 10 years.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “Playing on Centre Court in front of everybody and winning – that is just the best feeling in the world.”
Heather Watson uses the new Dunlop Biomimetic M3.0 racket, available for £159.99, and Dunlop Black Widow string. To view Dunlop’s full 2013 range of tennis equipment and apparel visit Dunlop.com