French Open 2012: Heather Watson powers through in style
British No3 Heather Watson powers into the second round of the French Open with a straight-sets win over Elena Vesnina
She is petite of frame, young of face, and turned just 20 last week, but the popular young Briton, Heather Watson, is making a habit of grabbing attention when it comes to Grand Slams.
She is one of four British women who made it into the main draw in Roland Garros this week—the most to do so for 21 years—after making it through three qualifying rounds for the second year in a row in Paris.
And this place clearly suits her because, for the second straight year, she has made it through to the second round with an emphatic win in an aggressive performance over the No83-ranked Elena Vesnina, 6-2 6-4.
The French Open marks Watson’s fifth straight Grand Slam though it is, thus far, the only one where she has got beyond the first round. But then looking at her draws in the last two, that is hardly surprising.
In Australia in January, she faced the form player of 2012 and the eventual champion, Victoria Azarenka, and at the US Open last year, she drew Maria Sharapova. Even so, Watson won over the entire Arthur Ashe stadium in an outstanding battle that saw her take the first set and a first break in the second before the former US champion powered her way back to a win.
This year, Watson is back in Paris with the same sense of purpose she had in New York but with a retooled serve that gave her the ideal foundation for her attacking tactics in the opening set against Vesnina. She did not lose a single point on her first delivery in the first set and broke her opponent twice to take a 6-2 lead in half an hour.
The Russian got more of a foothold in the second and made an early break, only for Watson to level again at 2-2. Then the Briton took the advantage to lead 4-2, only to have Vesnina level in turn at 4-4. Watson did not panic in the face of some solid baseline play from the Russian, though, and continued to hit to a length on both forehand and backhand wings, finding the corners and stepping inside her own baseline for some extra zip.
It was a mature and focused performance that finally brought a match-winning break at 4-5, and Watson—with possibly the most infectious smile in tennis—raised her arms in delight.
She next faces the winner of either Lucie Hradecka or Julia Goerges, and neither is an impossible obstacle if Watson continues to play with the same confidence, aggression and easy movement around what could become her most successful surface.
Two fellow Britons did not enjoy the same success. Elena Baltacha, playing her 10th straight Grand Slam, reached the second round of all four last year but has struggled to make the same headway through 2012. Her cause in Paris took a knock from the moment the draw was made, too, with world No6 Sam Stosur, French finalist in 2010 and current US Open champion, her first opponent.
Baltacha enjoyed the limelight for a short time: Hers was the first match of the tournament in Paris’s biggest tennis arena, Philippe Chatrier. But the power and variety of the Australian, with the first 6-4 set in the bag, quickly overcame Baltacha in the second set, 6-0.
Laura Robson, the youngest of the British quartet at 18, also enjoyed mixed fortunes. She did not get through the final round of qualifying in Paris but made it into her first French Open main draw courtesy of a “lucky loser” slot.
As luck would have it, Robson found the No29 seed, Anabel Medina Garrigues, on the other side of the net, just as she had in the second round of last year’s US Open. Back in New York, Robson won five games but on a surface less suited to her big-hitting game, she won only three.
The Spanish woman’s superior experience and movement on clay—she has won the most clay court titles, 10, among active players—imposed a rhythm that Robson could not break through. Despite 21 winners, and the Robson forehand down the line can be a thing of beauty, she made 17 errors to Medina Garrigues’ five.
Robson has had injury problems that have reduced the match-time she needs to build her confidence and fitness, but come Wimbledon, with the chance of a wild card and a kinder draw than last year—she beat Angelique Kerber in the first round and pushed Sharapova hard in the second—her time and place will surely come.
Anne Keothavong, 81st in the world, was the last of the quartet to play. She was drawn, in her fourth straight French Open, against the No116 Melinda Czink and, had she made it to the second round in Paris for the first time, she would have overtaken Baltacha as the British No1. As it was, Keothavong was completely outplayed, winning just three games.
With Olympic selection just round the corner, such results may become very significant for all concerned.