2012 saw the 2009 US Junior Champion reach the third-round run at Wimbledon, then take her first career title in Osaka, and so end the season as the top-ranked British woman at No49.
2013 also started well: a third-round run at the Australian Open followed by a quarter-final finish in Memphis took her inside the top 40, at No39. But after two first-round exits at Indian Wells and Miami, she discovered she was suffering from glandular fever and did not play again until the French Open.
Paris, though, brought another first-round loss, and despite a couple of wins at the start of the grass season, she also lost her opener at Wimbledon, and with it more ranking points. She has since admitted that she probably returned to the tour too soon, “but I didn’t want to miss out on Paris, and from then on, coming into Wimbledon, I wasn’t playing enough tennis.”
Come summer and the North American hard courts, she did not make it out of qualifying in Toronto or Cincinnati, and then was hit by another setback, a hip injury, that forced her retirement in New Haven.
Now ranked 76, she nevertheless assured BBC Radio 5 Live that she was now fully fit.
“We’ve actually been coming in early and getting some good court time, working on a lot, coming in—[new coach Jeremy Bates] knows what he’s talking about, especially when it’s coming in and volleying.”
Fortunately, her ranking was still enough to earn direct entry to the US Open draw. Unfortunately, she drew a seed in her first match and, as luck would have it, a player finding her best form and a career-high ranking of 19.
Simona Halep arrived in New York fresh from her first Premier title in New Haven, her fourth title of the year. She brought with wins over top-notch opposition, the likes of Agnieszka Radwanska, Jelena Jankovic, Marion Bartoli, Sam Stosur and Petra Kvitova.
But while Watson had never played Halep before, their similarities were many: Same age, height and weight, plus similar enthusiasm for aggressive play from the baseline—with some net play thrown in. And it showed in a tight tussle that saw the advantage swing back and forth.
Watson survived a double fault and a break point on her opening serve, and then immediately attacked her opponent’s serve first with a forehand winner down the line. A cross-court winner earned two break points and she snatched the second to take a 2-0 lead.
But Halep turned the tables with her own penetrating shots from the baseline, drew errors from the Briton and broke back.
This would set the tone for the set and the match. Halep, after a strong hold, began to unload some big shots from the back of the court that had Watson scurrying behind the baseline. She brought up two more break points, but Watson defended energetically, got her forehand into action again—making some fine angles—to hold.
The Romanian answered in kind—a strong, attacking hold—but Watson simply upped her aggression to earn three break points, and a shanked forehand from Halep took Watson to 5-3. Still a further twist saw Halep break, too, but Watson had the last break to take the set, 6-4.
The second set had much the same feel: Both women jostling to be the aggressor. There was little space or opportunity to come to the net—though Watson certainly tried and won several points by doing so.
However, it was her serving that let her down. She had to fend off break points after making three double faults in the third game. She survived, only to concede more in the next and the break. She levelled again, 4-4, but it was another double fault that gave the decisive break, and Halep served out the set, 6-4.
In what was becoming a gruelling contest—an hour and half in warm and humid conditions—this would be a test of the physical condition of both: of Watson’s recovery from injury and glandular fever, and of Halep’s resources after playing four tournaments before the US Open. The Romanian arrived in New York just days after winning her big title in New Haven: did she have enough in the tank for a three-setter?
She did, and she broke immediately as a weary-looking Watson struggled to keep her serving and groundstrokes under control.
Halep led 3-0, only for Watson to take advantage of some slack serving and recover one of two breaks. But Watson was soon under pressure again, and an eighth double fault gave Halep a 4-1 lead. All the Romanian had to do was hold serve, and Watson was able find little more resistance as she began to cramp. Her 60th error of the match offered up one more break point and, on the dot of two hours, Halep served out the match, 6-2.
Watson limped to the net, then slowly packed her possessions, though she was the player to stay and sign autographs before bidding her farewell to New York. A little later, she had to fight back the tears as she explained that lack of condition from lack of match-play may have been her downfall.
“I thought I played better than I have been. I played a good first two sets but the third, my fitness let me down a bit. I was cramping in the legs, partly because in the first sets I was tight and not relaxed. I had my chances, definitely, an opportunity to win that match in two sets, but she had the points when it mattered.”
Meanwhile, another dramatic three-setter was drawing to its conclusion across the site on Armstrong—and they must have heard the cheers in Manhattan. One of the youngest women in the draw, 17-year-old American Victoria Duval— a qualifier ranked 296—fought back from a 5-7 first set against No11 seed and former US champion, Sam Stosur, to win 6-4, 6-4.
It was perhaps the high-spot of a day that saw most women’s seeds advance with little trouble. Sara Errani did not drop a game in her 51-minute match, nor did Victoria Azarenka. Ana Ivanovic dropped only two games in her 58 minutes, similarly Flavia Pennetta, Maria Kirilenko and Elena Vesnina. Few even dropped a set, except Kvitova.
Laura Robson takes up the British torch in her second match on Wednesday afternoon, while Andy Murray will not play his first match until the evening. Dan Evans will hope to continue his giant-killing run on Thursday.