US Open 2011: Watson loses to Sharapova but wins new fans
British teenager gives former champion a scare before losing 3-6 7-5 6-3 at Flushing Meadows
Laura Robson faced her at Wimbledon, but in New York it was Heather Watson’s turn to take on one of the biggest forehands of one the biggest stars in the women’s game.
And she had to do it on the only stage that can compete with Centre Court at SW19.
For Watson’s challenge, in her first US main draw match, was to hold back the force of nature that is Maria Sharapova inside the dramatic Arthur Ashe Stadium.
In truth, most of Watson’s British supporters would have been satisfied with the scoreline Robson managed in June: a tie-breaker followed by a solid 6-3.
Watson had other ideas. She knows Sharapova to be aggressive and she intended to fight fire with fire: “I wanted to make her play every ball because she’s never going to give up. That’s what makes her a champion. She’s won Grand Slams and been No1, so I’m going to have to go out there and compete and give it my all.”
This from one of the 11 teenagers in the US draw, a 19-year-old hovering just outside the top 100. But Watson has tasted victory in New York before: She won the Junior title here two years ago, trains in the States and loves the hard courts here.
And one thing she doesn’t lack, however imposing the opponent, is ambition: “I always believed I could win. There’s no point in going out there if I don’t believe that I can win. I just wanted to give it everything and leave everything out there on the court.”
In Sharapova, she was playing a former US, Australian and Wimbledon champion who is enjoying one of her best seasons since returning from shoulder surgery.
Only last week, she won the Premier Cincinnati title. A formidable ask, then, for a young woman who had played only one other top-10 woman before: Watson played Vera Zvonareva in Eastbourne.
So this was already the biggest day of her professional life and quickly took on the look of the biggest upset of the tournament. Watson’s strategy was clearly to keep Sharapova on her toes””the statuesque Russian is not the most natural mover””and Watson used her all-court skills to keep Sharapova off balance and prevent her from finding the devastating rhythm on her forehand.
Watson showed confident aggression, too, attacking the oft-suspect Sharapova serve to break at the first time of asking. The Russian broke back straight away, but another double fault gave Watson a second chance.
Serving at 5-3, she brought up two set points but Sharapova saved the first with a big forehand, the second with a winning backhand. A wide swinging serve from Watson gave her a third bite of the cherry and this time she took it, 6-3, in little more than half an hour.
Still Watson was not done. She took advantage of a double fault and an over-hit forehand to break the opening game of the second set. If the New York crowd could not believe what they were seeing, nor could the fast-arriving media, sharpened pencils at the ready.
In typical gutsy style, though, Sharapova gritted her teeth, clenched her fist and began to find her trademark cross-court powerhouse of a forehand. She broke back and the two women rallied on equal terms for game after game, first one seeming to dominate and then the other.
If Watson made any tactical mistake it was to start driving her own forehand to the Sharapova forehand, and gradually the killer shot found its range and angle with more regularity and greater effect.
From 5-5, 30-30, the Sharapova venom took hold and her roars grew more intimidating. Watson showed a rare moment of vulnerability with only the second of two double faults in the match, and Sharapova jumped on two second-serves. The latter, a net-grasping forehand from the Russian, drew the error and handed the set to Sharapova, 7-5.
With the momentum now firmly on the Russian’s side, the No3 seed held serve to love while Watson faced three break points and finally succumbed to an immediate break.
With Sharapova’s shots now forcing Watson to the perimeters of the court with the depth and pace of her shots, the British woman never regained control.
What she did control, though, was a New York crowd devoted to Sharapova but entirely won over by Watson’s resilience, retrieval and spirit. They chanted her name, they cheered her winners, they even called for faults in her favour.
It was all, in the end, in vain. Watson found one winner to 17 from Sharapova in the final 6-3 set, but the Russian knew she had very nearly not made it.
Watson, afterwards fielding questions with extraordinary ease and maturity, bottled the atmosphere as a keepsake: “I absolutely loved the atmosphere today. I thought everyone was going to be supporting Maria and when they were chanting my name, I kind of got the goosebumps. I thought: stay calm, focus on the match.”
She did, and she also won the admiration and affection of the crowd that cheered her to the rafters as she walked from Arthur Ashe.