Sport

Heather Watson breaks new ground with place in Wimbledon fourth round

Call it a long-service award, if you like. On court again for the fifth successive day of these Championships, Heather Watson finally picked up a prize she has sought for a decade now and reached the second week of a grand slam for the first time in her professional career.

And thanks to a favourable lie in the bottom half of the draw, her 7-6, 6-2 victory over Slovenia’s Kaja Juvan has opened up the opportunity for a career-defining Wimbledon. Her next opponent will be the unseeded Jule Niemeier of Germany, ranked 97 to Watson’s 127.

At the age of 30, and after a poor run of form lasting a couple of years now, some may have thought that the former British No 1’s chance of reaching a fourth round had passed her by. Not Watson. “I’ve been in the third round quite a few times here at Wimbledon and Australian Open,” she said after the game. “So, yeah, I was just sort of waiting for it to happen. I waited long enough, I think.”

It came in somewhat dramatic fashion, despite the triple-break lead that Watson established in the second set. There was little to choose between the two players in the first set, but Watson carried the momentum of her tie-break win with her and Juvan had seemed overwhelmed and on the wane before a late rally clawed her back from 5-0 down.

Watson was forced to save three break points in a nervy final game before reaching match point, but she leapt on it, hurling herself forward at the ball as it ducked at her heels to get it back over the net and close out the game. “It wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t a bit of drama at the end,” she told the delighted crowd.

It is 10 years since Watson’s most famous Wimbledon moment, when she was within two points of beating Serena Williams in a third-round match on Centre Court. Since then her reliable presence on the circuit has been somewhat overshadowed by younger, newer talent, even though 2019 witnessed some of the best tennis of her life. Lockdown brought a brutal end to that purple patch, and she exited her last three slams in the first round, including a 6-1, 6-4 defeat to Juvan in the US Open.

Beset with anxiety before her games, she struggled to find any pleasure in competing. But the accumulated experience of a 13-year career has helped her to weather those times, and she describes herself as “much more level-headed” than her younger self. That maturity told here, in a week where her opening two matches both went into second days, causing her a run of sleepless, adrenalin-fuelled nights.

Her public complaint about the scheduling did not go unheard. She was first on Court No 1 on Fridayyesterday, facing an opponent nine years younger than her, and with a notably more powerful arm. Juvan recorded 110mph in her opening service game, but it was her returns that caused Watson the most concern. The Briton’s under-powered second serve is a weakness for her and here they came back at her like howitzers.

The tiebreak came after 47 minutes, jangling spectators’ nerves as Juvan saved three set points in a row. It was the crowd who gasped “out” as Juvan hit long at 6-6, even before Watson made her challenge; the pressure brought a double fault from the Slovenian and continued on into the second set, where she immediately went 0-30 down.

At 21, this is only Juvan’s third season on the circuit, and there were sympathetic noises as a rash of unforced errors beset her game in the second set, while her opponent’s groundstrokes became ever more assured. But when the Slovenian recovered, Watson was forced to pull out some of her best net play – the perfectly pitched lobs and deft volleys that are such a feature of her doubles play – and by the time the local hero made it over the line, few on Court No 1 were wishing the game would last any longer.

“She was coming up with some great shots so I had to give her credit for that,” said Watson, who added that she felt “surprisingly calm” towards the end of the game. “I know when her back’s against the wall, she produces some good stuff.” She paid tribute, too, to the return of her coach Diego Veronelli, a man who has always brought out the best in her. “I started working with Diego maybe 10 years ago … he was sort of new on tour. We were a great team for a few years.”

The pair reunited last year and the effect not just on Watson’s technical play but on her mental health has been invaluable. “That’s a really big thing for me,” she said, “I feel like he’s not just a coach, he’s really invested in me, my personal life. He wants to see me happy off the court and see me succeed on the court.”