Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson puts accent on positive progress

British No 1 sets goal of top-25 ranking after pushing Williams to brink

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The Independent Online

Michelle Watson can pinpoint the moment her daughter Heather decided she wanted to be a tennis player. “She was eight and a half when Tim Henman came to our club, the Kings Club in Guernsey,” Michelle recalled. “He asked if anyone wanted to play a point and Heather put her hand up. They played a rally and he played what he thought was a nice drop shot. She ran in and hit a winner. She was hooked from that moment onwards.”

Fast forward to Centre Court here two days ago and Watson was still chasing down shots and hitting winners. The British No 1 refused to describe her performance in pushing Serena Williams to the brink as the greatest of her career – “I wouldn’t call losing the greatest day” – but it should do wonders for her self-confidence. The speed that did for Henman almost did for the world No 1, who was repeatedly forced to play the extra ball by an opponent long recognised as one of the sport’s best athletes.

Being fast, nevertheless, is not enough. Watson has already enjoyed a fine career – she was US Open junior champion, has been in the world’s top 40 and has won two titles – but until Friday evening maybe even the 23-year-old herself did not believe she could beat the very best. She has only ever beaten one top-10 player – Agnieszka Radwanska (then the world No 8) in Indian Wells four months ago.

Yet while Watson lacks the power of a Williams or Kvitova, she is a clean striker of the ball and can volley and slice well. Her stunning performance against Williams was in part a tribute to her coach, Diego Veronelli. Taking advantage of her athleticism, Watson extended the rallies, did not go for outlandish winners and made only 11 unforced errors.

Veronelli has been working with Watson for 18 months. She was introduced to him by his fellow Argentinian Dante Bottini, who is based at the IMG Academy in Florida founded by Nick Bollettieri which she has attended since the age of 12.

Watson’s early years there were funded entirely by her parents, who are by no means wealthy. Michelle was born and raised in Papua New Guinea, while Watson’s father, Ian, is from Manchester. They settled in Guernsey in 1991, a year before Heather was born.

Heather Watson's mum, Michelle

With limited facilities in Guernsey, it was soon clear that Watson needed to move elsewhere if her tennis was to progress. When they visited the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Watson knew immediately it was where she wanted to be.

“We told her that it wasn’t going to be like living in a hotel,” Michelle recalled. “It’s army barracks-style over there. They make sure you keep your room tidy and it’s hard work. They go to school, play tennis and train, eat and sleep, but there isn’t much time for anything else. You’re there for your sport, not for a holiday. Heather is very, very competitive and there they have people like that not just in tennis but in other sports. It suited her.

“She roomed with six other girls. She settled in very quickly. There was no homesickness. She is tough. At the start she had $20 [£13] spending money per week. She used to phone home and say, ‘I’ve saved $5 this week. I can go and spend it at Walmart’.”

Michelle limits her travelling these days but is at Wimbledon and was courtside yesterday as Heather and her partner, Marina Erakovic, lost in the doubles to Anabel Medina Garrigues and Arantxa Parra Santonja.

Watson was ranked world No 38 in January, but is currently at No 59. She will climb about 10 places next week, but will still be short of the goal she set at her annual planning meeting with her father at the end of last year.

“He supports me 100 per cent,” Watson once said of her father. “No matter how I do he asks me at the end of the day, ‘Were you positive? I don’t care if you won or lost, just give me a mark out of 10 how positive you were.’ If it’s over eight he’s happy.” As for her current targets, Watson said: “I’d love to get seeded for a Grand Slam and my goal for the year is to finish inside the top 25. I’d be very happy with that.”

Bradenton remains Watson’s tennis base, but she is likely to spend more time here after buying a property in London recently. After Wimbledon, however, she will head for the North American hard-court circuit.

Her next tournament will be in Washington next month, after which she plans to play in Toronto, Cincinnati and New Haven before heading to New York for the US Open.

Despite her years in the US, Watson still sounds very British. “The Americans absolutely love my accent, but they do find it hard to understand sometimes,” she said.

“If I’m out and I ask for a glass of water, they’ll say, ‘What?’ So I have to say [in an American drawl] ‘Wa-aa-ta’. Then they know what you’re talking about.”