Wimbledon 2012: Contrasting ‘firsts’ for Watson and Williams

Monday was a day to remember for British No3 Heather Watson but one to forget for five-time champion Venus Williams

heather watson
Heather Watson wowed the Centre Court crowd on Monday Photo: Carine06, via Flickr

heather watson

The opening day of Wimbledon could not have been bookended by two more contrasting events.

Barely before the clock had ticked past midday, out on Court 2, one of the tournament’s greatest champions, Venus Williams, played her first—and what would be her last—match of the 2012 Championships.

At the other end of the day, and held back as a scheduling treat to close play on Centre Court, came the youthful home face of Heather Watson about to play the best match of her career thus far.

Five-time champion Williams has battled with the autoimmune disease Sjögren’s syndrome since last summer, forcing her unexpected withdrawal from the US Open. But with changes to lifestyle and diet, she had begun the slow return to some form this year: She reached the quarters in Miami, Charleston and Rome.

But in Elena Vesnina, Williams faced a strong opponent and Williams, looking tired and lack-lustre, never found her way into the Russian’s powerful tennis.

Vesnina broke serve twice in the opening games to go ahead 4-0 and Williams came perilously close to a bagel at 5-0, 40-15 down. She managed to get one game on the board, but Vesnina quickly finished off the set, 6-1.

The second set was a slightly closer affair but it was again Vesnina who broke first to lead 4-2 and she served out the match, 6-3, to send Williams out of the tournament in the first round for the first time in 15 years.

The 32-year-old American, playing unseeded at the Championships for the first time since 1997, was gracious in defeat but feisty in the face of a stream of questions about her future in the sport. Between the lines—for no-one wanted to say it—was the question: Would this hasten the retirement of the former champion?

“I feel like I’m a great player. I am a great player. I’m up for challenges. There’s no way I’m going to give up because I’m having a bad time in the first few tournament back. I’m tough, let me tell you. Tough as nails.”

“I don’t have time to be negative, it’s not fun. I like to use the time to be positive because it feels a whole lot better. And also it’s easier to be productive when you’re positive, so that’s what I work on.”

Whatever the longer term holds for Williams, she will still contest the doubles here with sister Serena and hopes to be back to take part in the Olympics as well.
“It’s all I’ve fought for all year. I hope I can play well there, but for me it’s just an honour to be there. The Olympic experiences were the time of my life.”

And so to the last match of the day. The British No3, 20-year-old Heather Watson, was switched to Centre Court when the order of play was completed in good time, and what a debut it turned out to be for Watson.

She was up against world No55, Iveta Benesova, and played aggressive, attacking tennis from the outset, racing to a 4-1 lead in the opening set. She dropped just one more game to take a one-set lead, 6-2, and then proceeded to thrill the home crowd by doing the same in the second set.

It took her just 40 minutes to take that set, 6-1, making just five unforced errors to 12 winners—a total of 24 winners for the match—and she could not have been more delighted. Watson is the most bubbly of young women, “a ray of sunshine,” according to Maria Sharapova, and she will want to bottle the fizz she felt in winning her first match at Wimbledon.

“This is my first singles win at Wimbledon, including juniors, so I’m so pleased!

“You have to be out there to feel it. It’s just an unbelievable feeling. I’m getting to the stage now, and this is why I’ve been playing tennis almost my whole life, for moments like those. It’s just my dream, and I love to be in that moment and experiencing all that.”

She summed up the challenge with her favourite quote: “The biggest risk is not taking any.”

And there may be more risk and more success to come. She next plays American Jamie Hampton, ranked just three places up from her at 100, who was the surprise winner over Slovakian 27th seed Daniela Hantuchova, 6-4, 7-6.

There was a clutch of other Grand Slam champions in action on opening Monday and two of the most popular, Kim Clijsters and Maria Sharapova, were straight sets winners.

Clijsters, playing her last Wimbledon because, she pronounced ahead of the tournament, she is “too old to play the game that I want to play physically”, looked by far the more spritely in beating the No18 seed, Jelena Jankovic, while new No1 Sharapova blasted 23 winners past Anastasia Rodionova in her 6-2, 6-3 win.

Other Grand Slammers who sailed on in style were Sam Stosur and Na Li, while seeds who did not make it through were No16, Flavia Pennetta, who lost to qualifier Camila Giorgi, 6-4 6-3, and the No29 seed Monica Niculescu who lost to Stephanie Foretz Gacon in three sets.

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