Heather Watson has been based at the IMG Academy in Florida founded by Nick Bollettieri since she was 12 and remembers when Serena Williams used to visit. Serena and her sister Venus would come to Bradenton for training blocks in the off-season and between tournaments.
Watson, who faces the biggest match of her life here today when she meets Serena for the first time, recalled: “When I was younger, 12 or 13, and at school there, it was a big thing for her to come and train there.
“All of our teachers let us out of school to go and watch her practise and play. And now I get the opportunity to play her. It’s really exciting. When people who don’t know much about tennis find out I play, one of the first questions is: ‘Have you played Serena?’ I’m like, ‘No. But I have played Venus’.”
Watson, who lost to Venus in straight sets in Beijing last year, remembers being aware of the Williams sisters at an even earlier age. “When I was seven or eight years old I came to Wimbledon and I bought two posters,” Watson recalled.
“One was Venus and Serena together and one was Roger Federer. So those were the three players that I liked. They went straight up on my wall.” While it would be wrong to describe Watson and Williams as equals – you would have to go back in history to find a match for the all-conquering American – nobody can doubt the Briton’s right to take her place on Centre Court this afternoon.
Unlike the other British women in the main draw, Watson earned her slot through her world ranking rather than with the benefit of a wild card. She has reached the last 32 with two good victories, having saved three match points before beating Caroline Garcia, the No 32 seed, and beaten Daniela Hantuchova, a former world No 5, in straight sets.
Currently ranked No 59 in the world, Watson should climb back to the brink of the top 50 on the strength of those two wins. Does Watson regard the meeting with Williams as the biggest match of her career? “I haven’t really thought of it like that,” she said. “I just really look forward to playing her. She is a great champion and a legend in the game, so it will be a great experience for me. And where better for me to play her than here at Wimbledon?”
Had she ever talked much to Williams? “No, the most is ‘Hi’,” Watson said. “Some people you see all the time, but I hardly see her. She does have a presence about her. She is a strong woman. Even if she wasn’t a tennis player she would have a presence.”
Asked what she knew about Watson, Williams said: “I don’t know her at all. I see her around the locker room a little bit. She’s always smiling, so she seems to be super sweet. I know Venus has played her before. I’ve watched that match a few times. I feel like she does really well on grass. She played well in Eastbourne a couple times. I know it’s not going to be easy for me. She has nothing to lose. She’s going forward.”
Williams believes that playing in front of a home crowd will help Watson. “I think it will be a huge advantage for her,” she said. “It’s going to be a great big match for us both. I’ve been used to playing against a lot of local people, no matter what country it’s in, and hopefully that experience will help me a little bit.”
Even if Williams has had plenty of experience playing opponents on their home soil, this will be the first time she has ever met a British player at Wimbledon, where she has contested 84 matches since making her debut in 1998. Indeed, in a career spanning 839 matches the only British opponent Williams has ever faced was Laura Robson, whom she beat for the loss of only four games in Rome two years ago.
Watson has never met a world No 1 and has beaten only four top 20 opponents. She beat Dominika Cibulkova (then the world No 12) in Montreal and Flavia Pennetta (No 12) in Eastbourne last summer, Agnieszka Radwanska (No 8) in Indian Wells last March and Elina Svitolina (No 17) in Eastbourne last week.Reuse content