The 20-year-old British No2—just one point behind Laura Robson last week—hot-footed from Quebec to win through the qualifying rounds in Tokyo, the first of two Premier tournaments on the western Pacific rim.
Without a singles win since the first round of the Olympics, Watson was looking for a launch-pad to a strong end-of-year run, and she found it. With two qualifying wins under her belt—one a tough three-setter over Andrea Hlavackova, ranked 15 places above her—she then put out the powerful German Sabine Lisicki who, though currently ranked at 30, was ranked No12 as recently as May.
As luck—of the bad kind—would have it, Watson then faced No2 Maria Sharapova who she also faced in the first round of the US Open last year. Since that match, Watson had also drawn the short straw in the first round of the Australian Open with Victoria Azarenka and then Na Li in her US Open opener this year.
The good news, though, was that Watson had pushed Sharapova to the limits in that first and only meeting. She took the first set and broke early in the second before the Russian turned it around, 3-6, 7-5, 6-3. It proved to be the same story in Tokyo.
Just as in New York, Watson managed to keep Sharapova off balance and prevent her from finding a rhythm on serve or from the baseline. Twice the Briton hit back from a break down in the opening set and then she saved set points in the tie-break, eventually taking it 9 points to 7.
Sharapova was the first to break in the second set, as well, but Watson again broke back. With both women struggling to hold serve, though, it was the experience of Sharapova, twice a champion in Tokyo, that came through and she held to take the set, 6-3.
Yet again, both women broke in the opening games of the final set, and then once more. They stayed on level terms until the seventh game where Watson faced three break points at 0-40.
She saved the first with a big forehand down the line and the second with a backhand cross-court response to a sizzling return of serve from Sharapova. On the third, though, a full-blooded Watson forehand landed the wrong side of the line and Sharapova made the 14th break of the match. It also proved to be the last break, and the No2 seed served out the match, 6-4.
After more than three hours, and with three Tokyo matches in her legs already, Watson looked spent by the end, but she was rightly upbeat about her performance. She told The Tennis Space:
“It was a tough three-setter, very physical, but I went out there to win and I gave it everything I had.
“I’ve gained more experience today, I know what I need to do, I know where I stand, I know what I need to improve.”
She now heads from the frying pan into the fire, scheduled to qualify for the even bigger China Open next week. There she will find friend, rival and compatriot Robson. And which of them will head the British rankings by the end of the year is anyone’s guess.
At the very top of the rankings, the picture looks much clearer. The top four, Azarenka, Sharapova, Agnieszka Radwanska and Serena Williams—the only top woman missing in Tokyo—have already qualified for the WTA Championships in Istanbul in a month’s time. The first three have also reached the third round in Japan, along with several other serious contenders for one of the 10 sought-after Istanbul spots.
Performing strongly yet again after a breakthrough 12 months is No6 Angelique Kerber, enjoying her highest ever ranking this summer.
She is closely followed by another rising star of 2012, Sara Errani, up to her own career high of No7 after starting the year at 45. Errani next plays the No10-ranked Marion Bartoli who was hit by illness at the season’s end last year after just making the cut for Istanbul.
In places 8 and 9 come two Grand Slam champions making their own modest surge late in the year after a mixed season. Li had a nightmare on the grass at Wimbledon and the Olympics and then came back to reach the final of Montreal and to win Cincinnati. She next plays former No1 Caroline Wozniacki in Tokyo, who won her first tournament in over a year in Seoul last week and sits at No11 in the race.
In ninth place is Sam Stosur, who has combined first-round losses with deep runs at the French Open and some of the North American hard-court tournaments.
Stosur next faces Dominika Cibulkova who, at 12 in the race, is also in contention to qualify for the first time for the end-of-year climax. The petite Slovakian made a strong run during the closing indoor tournaments last year, reaching the final in Linz and winning in Moscow, so is certainly one to watch.
Others competing for a quarterfinal place in Tokyo and still with an eye on Istanbul are Roberta Vinci, No14, Lucie Safarova, 16, and Nadia Petrova, 18.
Those who will have to lift their games if they are to fight off the challengers are No5, Petra Kvitova—who lost her opening Tokyo match—and Ana Ivanovic, who has made encouraging strides this season from No22 to a current 13 in the race but lost her opener to the fast-rising sister of Radwanska, Urszula.
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