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Watson ready for next step

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Chris Bevan | 10:12 UK time, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

At Lawn Tennis Association headquarters, Roehampton.

It's appropriate that Heather Watson has become the latest young player to put a smile back on the face of British tennis - she rarely stops grinning herself.

The bubbly 17-year-old, crowned US Open girls' champion a month ago, is on a rare trip back to the UK as she prepares to turn professional and continues the launch of her senior career.

She will become a pro on her return to America next week; the next chapter in a story that began when she won the Guernsey under-eight and under-nine short tennis titles in 2000.

Watson's promise at tennis led to her moving at the age of 12 from the Channel Islands to Nick Bollettieri's academy on the west coast of Florida, where she has lived ever since. That may sound idyllic, but it meant leaving her friends and most of her family behind - and a lot of hard work on and off the tennis court.

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It paid off, eventually. Like her friend and fellow British hope, Laura Robson, Watson is now a junior Grand Slam champion. Unlike Robson, who is 18 months younger and won last year's girls' Wimbledon title at the age of 14, Watson had to wait for her success.
In fact, Watson's win came just in time.

When I spoke to her mother Michelle immediately after watching Heather being beaten in the first round of the girls' singles at this year's Wimbledon, she told me that her daughter's future direction in the game would depend on how she fared at Flushing Meadows.

It was not quite her last chance saloon - Watson had been offered the chance to continue her education free of charge with full scholarships at several prestigious American universities, who wanted her on their tennis teams, but taking the college option would have all-but signalled the end of her professional hopes.

Thankfully, it didn't come to that. When Watson became only the second British player after Andy Murray to win the junior US title, it was enough to convince her that she did have what it takes to make an impact in women's tennis too.

I met her on a chilly autumn morning at the Lawn Tennis Association's headquarters in Roehampton where, while I wait for her to finish an interview with BBC Radio 5 live, Jamie Murray, Ross Hutchins and Jamie Delgado file into reception and shuffle off towards the practice courts.

This is just part of their daily routine but, having lived in Florida since 2004, Watson is far less familiar with the National Tennis Centre and has not seen much of any of her compatriots either.

"I only met Andy Murray properly for the first time yesterday," Watson told me, enthusiastically. "He just said 'Hi, how are you'. I was pretty excited but I just tried to keep cool!"

That's probably the closest Watson comes to admitting ever being starstuck but, despite her all-American upbringing, she is much like any British teenager when discussing her favourite topics - X-Factor, Johnny Depp... and shopping.

heather595a.jpgWatson celebrates her US Open success with her mother Michelle

"I live right next to one of the best beaches in Florida but they don't have anything as good as Top Shop back in the States," Watson, who loves fashion almost as much as her idol Serena Williams, tells me ruefully as she discusses a recent shopping trip to the new Westfield shopping mall in west London.

Robson is the British player she knows best, and spends most time with when on these shores. The Australian-born Londoner not only knows the grind of her daily routine - just as importantly they share an interest in the fortunes of Irish twins John and Edward, and have a lot of laughs when they meet up off-court, as they did for a Chinese meal last week.

Given that they share similar globe-trotting backgrounds, and the same dreams in tennis, it's perhaps not a surprise that the two get on so well. "We are friends, not rivals," adds Watson, who has never played Robson competitively but teamed up with her in the doubles at Barnstaple earlier this month.

Like Robson, Watson will concentrate largely on senior tennis over the next 12 months but we should not under-estimate the task that faces her as she looks to translate her junior achievements into senior success.

On the junior Tour, Watson is the world number three and the British number one but, in senior terms, she is ranked 603rd in the world and 17th nationally.

She is still coming into the professional ranks at a relatively late age, too. Her nimble style might recently have seen her compared to Martina Hingis by LTA head women's coach Nigel Sears but, by the time she was Watson's age, the 'Swiss Miss' had won four senior Grand Slam titles.

Bollettieri predicts that Watson, whose strengths are a big serve and her speed around the court, "can be a very good professional. By that I mean not just 150 or 100 but to make a good living".

But that might take some time. Heather's first aim is to get close to the top 300, the territory where players like junior number one Noppawan Lertcheewakarn - who she beat on her way to the US Open title - reside. Watson is confident she is can match her achievements and could feasibly manage the leap quickly if her first senior results are good.

Her victory over another Brit, Mel South, at Barnstaple was encouraging - South is ranked around 450 places above her - as was Tuesday's win over German top seed Mona Barthel (the world number 361) to qualify for the main draw of the AEGON Classic in Glasgow.

heather595c.jpgWatson has had to get used to more media attention

But Watson will need to keep beating higher ranked players over the next few months in smaller senior tournaments, while keeping her profile high by trying to win major junior ones - she is eligible to enter them for most of next year.

Breaking into the top 200 will be even more difficult - and she will need more invitations to top events to even get the opportunity to win the points she needs to manage that - but her US title will be a massive help in persuading tournament organisers to give her a place.

It already guarantees her a wildcard into the qualifiers for the 2010 senior event at Flushing Meadows, where Robson got to within a game of the main draw this year.
All in all, it's a big ask - even without factoring in Watson's education. She is in her final year at Pendleton High School, which is attached to Bollettieri's Academy in Bradenton and intends to graduate next summer before turning to full-time tennis.

"As soon as I get back to Florida it will be official - I'll become a professional," Watson told me. "But until June my life will be pretty similar - I'll just be playing a lot more tournaments. Then I will finish my high school and all my focus will be on tennis.

"I'm going to set a goal for myself with my ranking and try to reach that, and if I do I'll set myself another one. I know I need to carry on getting fitter and try to keep on improving."
The rigours of life at Bolletteri's notoriously tough 'boot camp' will undoubtedly prove useful in the future, however.

She moved there on her own, before being joined by her mother 18 months ago, but has never been fazed about living so far from home, which bodes well for transient life on the women's Tour.

Watson is one of around 300 players from more than 70 countries at the academy, which boasts alumini of the calibre of Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic, and her place there initially cost her parents £40,000 a year - the LTA now pick up the tab.

"I just enjoyed meeting people and all the different characters around me," Watson, who has three older siblings, explained. "My best friends are from Korea and California."
"I don't really get homesick. We are a close family so it's not always been that easy but I speak to my dad every day."

She is yet to decide whether to come back to the UK, and the rest of her family, in June, or remain in Florida.

But, even if she takes the latter option she knows that, after years of existing under the tennis radar of the British public, expectations of her progress are, suddenly, high.
There are upsides of course - Watson has received her first fanmail since winning in the States - but will the added pressure take its toll? Not likely, as the impression she gives is that she remains as driven as ever.

"I'm really enjoying all the attention at the moment - it's all happened so quickly," she explained, with another smile.

"Can I get to where I want to go? Yes, definitely. I have to be able to believe in myself otherwise I wouldn't be doing what I am doing and going professional. I believe I can make it all the way."

It will be fun following Watson's progress over the next few months. You can be sure she will enjoy it just as much.

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  • Comment number 1.

    I did not get to the end of reading this article as it seems to be duplicated all the way through. Shame as the content was hopefully going to be interesting. Always nice to hear about up and coming British talent but nobody is going to read this, then re-read etc to get a gist of what is going on. Can someone sort it out and let me know when it can be read from start to finish


  • Comment number 2.


    Sorry about that, a few publishing problems led to the duplications - not entirely sure why that happened. All sorted now though.

  • Comment number 3.

    I find it all a bit disturbing this focus on young people who have not yet reached a high level (being a near top junior at 17 is no guarantee of anything). Sure her sponsors should be delighted but it would be best if we waited for real achievement? Let people earn attention and sponsorship. Age level bests are fine but players of her age who have failed to become good even bypass the level she won at.

    Also in terms of future prospects I note you totally miss out the most important thing her height. Sure if she was exceptionally gifted but as you point out she is not. She finally won.

    "It was not quite her last chance saloon..... but taking the college option would have all-but signalled the end of her professional hopes."

    Why is the pot always over egged? This kind of desire for: lone assassin: against the world: back to the wall story lines: is for losers or put nicely very occasional winners. If you are good enough the collegiate circuit can still be a stepping stone. All you're actually saying is that she was, and maybe still is, a very marginal prospect and hence not worth an article.

    Is this free praise and attention and sponsorship likely to help or hinder development on the evidence of my lifetime the latter on someone who is probably a year or two behind a schedule to the top.

  • Comment number 4.

    Watson won't make it. I wish her well in another career though.

  • Comment number 5.

    Heather is a fantastic ambassador for Guernsey and she will be a wonderful asset to British tennis.

  • Comment number 6.

    Heather Watson won the US open girls championship at the same age Murray won the boys US open boys championshp. Given the dire state of British tennis at the moment both are worthy of a mention.

  • Comment number 7.

    That's better, thanks Chris

    Lets hope she can go on to bigger and better things. With Laura Robson as well, maybe we can inject a little interest and then more effort from anyone choosing to pick up a raquet. Just because we are British does not mean we have to be useless at Tennis. Come on, lets believe.

  • Comment number 8.

    It's obviously early, but I wouldn't put any money on her doing anything special in her career. I'd back her to make the top 100 or maybe 50 though (I'll happily be proven wrong, of course!)

    I expect greater things from Robson though. Winning a junior slam at 14 does bode well for the future, much more than doing so at 17.

  • Comment number 9.

    Being a top junior doesn't automatically mean you will make it to the top but it is an indication that with hard work and luck you at least have a chance. I'm hoping that Heather makes it. She is a lovely girl with her feet on the ground.

  • Comment number 10.

    I agree with therewesaidit's view on the "last chance saloon" comment. James Blake went to college and he made it as high as No. 4.

  • Comment number 11.

    What is the LTA doing for British tennis as they are not producing anybody through their programmes.

    What reflection on the LTA does this have, she had to go to Florida to learn her trade.

  • Comment number 12.

    3. Not sure I agree with too much of what you're saying here...

    I feel winning a junior Grand Slam IS a real achievement, whether you are 14 or 17 and, by doing so, Heather has earned some attention back home. Compare her win to Laura Robson - a bit of a difference in the amount of coverage wasn't there?

    You say: "If you are good enough the collegiate circuit can still be a stepping stone. All you're actually saying is that she was, and maybe still is, a very marginal prospect and hence not worth an article.

    A fair point that a few players do come through the collegiate circuit. As well as James Blake, that a later poster refers to, I remember our own Sam Smith doing the same. Would you agree, though, that it's a less direct route, if nothing else?

    Heather has surprised a few people, and I daresay herself a bit, by winning at Flushing Meadows. What would you suggest as her next move - put her down as a "marginal prospect" or applaud her for having a go at realising her potential... she is basically going to see how good she can be.

    I'd go for the latter.

  • Comment number 13.

    5, 9. Yep, Heather is a great girl and her attitude is definitely one of her assets.

    11. Hi Twigmiester, you make a good point...

    Heather's parents paid for her to go to Florida because it provided the best combination of tennis development and a good education.

    At the time she went, 2004, her results weren't good enough to get her any assistance from the LTA so the early part of her career was down to her own determination and that of her parents (another reason she deserves credit for doing as well as she has and winning a junior Grand Slam).

    Back then, you were either with the LTA or you weren't. There was no middle ground. That's changed now, and you don't have to go through the LTA's own system to get funding. They look at what's best for each individual - you can be with the LTA and be based in Spain/US/Easter Island if that's what's best for you.

    There was no fall-out between Heather's parents and the LTA back then, she just didn't qualify. Very few national associations have any link with Nick Bollettieri's academy - most of the players there pay for their place independently so Heather was no different to them.

    The LTA are funding her now though.

  • Comment number 14.

    3. Oops, just one other thing. You said Heather's height was the most important thing...

    She is 5ft 7in, the same height as Martina Hingis

    Justine Henin is 5ft 5.5in
    Kim Clijsters in 5ft 8.5in

    True, your style of play is determined largely by your physical attributes but Heather's height alone is not going to decide whether she makes it or not.

  • Comment number 15.

    Some comments here are simply hollow,shallow, very predictable and shockingly sad.Some cry about the poor girl's height.What do they expect,that the girl grows taller somehow?How tall was Amanda coutzer of SA?Wasn't she a success in her own right?Who says 5',7" is too short for tennis? How tall was Huddin, the girl who caused upsets at the US open not so long ?
    And what is wrong with the kid learning her trade in the US? Does that change her nationality or what?I thought you want to celebrate the best of her and if she can get her self best conditioned there for whatever reason, so what?Before blaming anyone,have you heard the girl say she left England for the US for some LTA connected reason ?
    Then Someone comes out like some kind of guru of a fortune teller to say:"I wouldn't put any money on her doing anything special in her career"Huh!nice try.That's some mirror into the future ,but isn't it so archaic to make such a suggestion before she is even started! Who are you anyway?That kind of comment makes could only come from a loser.

  • Comment number 16.

    Give the girl a chance!

  • Comment number 17.

    Great article Chris!! I'd be careful - there are some of your BBC colleagues who will be after you for failing to critisice the LTA once in an article this long!!

    Great to see the other positive comments on here as well!

    Not surprised by the negative - any chance to put people down is quickly taken by the viewers of these blogs. One of the reasons I've moved out to America and am at college doing my graduate degree. Lucky enough to have seen some of the girls' tennis out here and, even with some of the most highly rated girls in the country, and beyond, I can assure you that currently on the girls side at least college is not a preparation for a sustainable career in pro tennis. It is different in doubles but singles - it is a big risk to take 4 years away from the pro level!!

    Heather is a great girl, and her mum makes sure her feet stay right on the ground. She can go as high as she wants to and I'm excited to see her, Laura, Joss Rae, Tara Moore, and the younger ones below that come through in the next 4 or 5 years and take British Women's Tennis to a new level. How long before the Fed Cup team is in a higher division than the Davis Cup team?

  • Comment number 18.


    It's obviously early, but I wouldn't put any money on her doing anything special in her career. I'd back her to make the top 100 or maybe 50 though (I'll happily be proven wrong, of course!)

    Perhaps you are a genius in your filed of expertise. As for me, anywhere in the top thousand would be an achievement.


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