The top ranked British woman at No48, Robson was drawn against No18 seed Kirsten Flipkens, while Watson drew No31 seed Daniela Hantuchova, and both Britons came into their matches with far from ideal preparation.
Robson was playing her first competitive match since her first-round exit in Osaka last October. She withdrew from Auckland with a wrist problem at the start of this season and then retired mid-way through her opener in Hobart last week.
Her lack of match-play was clear from the start, and an early start it was—first onto a packed Court 3 on the opening morning of the tournament.
She began with four straight errors to drop her serve, and went on to extend that run of errors to nine. She stopped the rot to get on the scoreboard in the third game, encouraged as always by a supportive crowd. Robson is popular wherever she plays, and especially in the city of her birth, even though her family left Australia when she was 18 months old.
But Robson had anticipated that Flipkins, a semi-finalist at Wimbledon last year, would be a difficult opponent. The Belgian is a quick mover with terrific defensive skills and a wide swinging serve. The most destructive element of her game, however, is her slice, which kept her in the few rallies that developed and drew error after error from the big, flat forehand of Robson.
Flipkens broke again to take the first set in a scant 26 minutes, 6-3, but the second set would pass even more quickly, as Robson’s serve also began to let her down. Flipkens played solid, almost error-free tennis, picking up what few Robson forehands the Briton got into play and returning them with angle and slice. Robson, in the latter stages, attempted a few net rushes but her volleying was just as erratic, and on the dot of 50 minutes, Flipkens sealed the match, 6-0.
The Belgian had made just one unforced error in the set, four in the match, compared with a total of 32 from Robson. Even so, the Briton, who turns 20 next week, was reluctant to blame her wrist injury: “I prefer not to talk about my wrist because then it’s just going to become this massive excuse. Really she just played better than me.
“I don’t think I ever really got into a rhythm at all…I wasn’t really able to deal with her slice that well. It just didn’t go well. I definitely expected to play better, but it happens.”
Her loss, after a third-round run in Melbourne last year, will see her drop outside the top 50 for the first time in a year, having reached a career-high 27 after a fourth-round run at Wimbledon.
Watson’s health problems over the last 12 months saw her slide from a personal ranking high of 39 less than a year ago to her current 121.
Suffering from glandular fever for much of 2013, she won only five matches in 16 tournaments between March and October, but looked more like her usual determined self in the run-in to Melbourne. She got some valuable matches under her belt through qualifying in Brisbane and Sydney, and came through three rounds of qualifying to earn her place in the main draw of the Open itself.
Despite the tough preparation, she too found herself swiftly back on court at 11am on the opening morning, but still came close to outlasting the 29-year-old Hantuchova, a semi-finalist in Melbourne in 2008. The Slovakian has rarely been outside the top 30 since she reached her career-high No5 as a teenager, and showed some powerful baseline hitting to break Watson at 5-5 in a tightly contested opening set.
Hantuchova served it out, 7-5, just as a beaten Robson was leaving Court 3, but Watson would keep her match in the balance for another hour and a half.
The Briton showed all her gutsy qualities in the second, stepping in to take the initiative, and she forced a growing tally of errors from her tall opponent—16 in this set alone. Watson broke twice to level the match, 6-3.
The deciding set would last almost an hour, as Watson fought back from 0-40 in her first service game, and from a break down to level the set 3-4. However, she was immediately broken again, as the pressure—and perhaps by now some fatigue—drew 18 errors for only eight winners in the set. Hantuchova served it out, 6-3.
For Watson, despite the loss, this was an encouraging comeback to the big stage, and she was right to say: “I felt I was close throughout the match.”
She also showed some admirable perspective: “I really looked forward to this draw, but I’ve played 10 matches already this year. If you’d told me that last year I would have taken it in a second.
“Even though I might be dropping in the rankings, I’m not worried about that. I’ve had a good start to the year, I’ve improved as a player, and it’s been a positive few weeks.”
Perhaps the biggest upset of the day was the loss of former Wimbledon champion and the No6 seed, Petra Kvitova, who made 40 unforced errors against the little known No88 ranked woman from Thailand, Luksika KumKhum.
In the other quarter of this half of the draw, there was also an early exit for No7 seed Sara Errani, who lost 6-3, 6-2 to Julia Goerges.
Those high-profile exits clear the biggest seeds from the path of No1 Serena Williams and No4 Na Li, who both scored straightforward wins.
Angelique Kerber, seeded No9, survived three sets against the talented Australian Jarmila Gajdosova, while No22 seed, Ekaterina Makarova came back from a set down to beat Venus Williams.
However No12 seed Roberta Vinci, No23 seed Elena Vesnina and former world No2 Vera Zvonareva all lost.
And in the battle between the oldest, Kimiko Date-Krumm at age 43, and the youngest, 16-year-old Belinda Bencic, youth won out—in three sets—and will now play the 31-year-old Li.
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