French Open 2013: Heather Watson goes down fighting in Paris

French Open 2013: Heather Watson is beaten 6-4 2-6 6-4 by Stefanie Voegele in first round of Roland Garros in Paris

heather watson
Heather Watson lost in three sets on Wednesday morning Photo: Carine06/Flickr

Sixty years to the day after the biggest obstacle in the world, Mount Everest, was conquered, the only remaining British woman in the French Open draw, Heather Watson, had her own mountain to climb.

Just three days after her 21st birthday, she took to court, a day later than scheduled due to the Parisian rain, to play her first match since being diagnosed with glandular fever in March.

Indeed Watson had considered skipping Paris altogether, and instead focus on her preparations for the imminent grass season. But with a couple of weeks of practice under her belt, she decided to get back into competition at Roland Garros, a tournament where she reached the second round in the last two years.

She played the No56-ranked Swiss woman, Stefanie Voegele, who beat her in Memphis in February before the reason for Watson’s diminishing form had been diagnosed. Their only other meeting, by coincidence, had been here in 2011, a straight sets victory for the Briton.

And it took her just two minutes to win her opening service game on a cool, overcast day in front of a sparse crowd out on Court 6. Voegele, though, quickly replied in kind, introducing some big moon-balling forehands to pin Watson against the back of the court.

Watson upped the stakes in the third game with some solid serving followed by an aggressive forehand finish for a love hold. If Watson could keep the rallies going and build some rhythm, she might draw errors from an opponent sometimes over-eager to go for winners. The danger, coming back from an energy-sapping condition, was whether Watson could maintain the physical intensity to pursue such a game-plan.

Watson was, indeed, the first to face a break point, but forced one of numerous errors from the Swiss forehand. However, a double fault offered up a second chance and Watson was broken when she put a forehand wide.

The Briton faced two more break points as Voegele stepped up her attack on the Watson serve with some blistering winners, but Watson responded, coming to the net to snuff out the danger. She could not, though, break the Swiss down, and Voegele served out the set, 6-3.

Watson immediately came under pressure in the first game of the second set, but she used her speed of foot and a variety of shot-making to fend off four break points in a gutsy 10-minute game.

The growing ranks of spectators were clearly appreciative of the Briton’s nimble, smart play and its contrast with the flashy, big-hitting tennis of the Swiss. It made for some lively and interesting exchanges, and a long forehand rally earned its reward for Watson with two break points in the second game. She seized her chance with a winning backhand return-of-serve for a 2-0 lead.

The Watson forehand came to her rescue in the face of two more break points in the third game, but she could not defend another, and Voegele broke back, went on the attack with some fine volleying, and levelled, 2-2.

But what Watson’s growing band of fans warms to is her positive attitude. She knuckled down, built some strong rallies and forced enough errors to break again and, helped by a growing tally of aces, held for a 5-2 lead.

Already with 17 winners to just six errors in the set, her forehand powered through the Voegele serve to break once more, and she took the set, 6-2.

Now the Swiss woman took a timely comfort break—timely because Court 6 is some distance from the nearest amenities. Whether the delay played its part in Watson’s loss of momentum is hard to say, but she opened the decider with a loose service game and was broken.

She came close to going 3-0 down, too, but did keep the margin to just one break—a margin that would persist through the rest of the set. Voegele remained very focused, served strongly and made just four errors in the set to take the match, 6-4.

Watson was briefly the No1 ranked British woman, reaching 39 this February after a third-round run at the Australian Open. But after first-round losses at Indian Wells and Miami—her last two competitive matches this year—she slipped behind Laura Robson and is now ranked 48. Not that such setbacks affect the mind-set of Watson: “I don’t want to settle for being No2. I’m always going to try and be British No1.

“I haven’t looked at the rankings the whole time, I don’t even know what my ranking is now, and I don’t want to look at it for the next couple of weeks. I just want to focus on getting better and getting my game back.

“I’ve known people to be out for a year, two years. Robin Soderling is still out, Mario Ancic finished [playing]. I’m lucky and I’ve been able to recover from it.”

She was clearly frustrated to lose this one, tossing her racket aside on her way to shake hands with her opponent: She looked for much of the match as though she would pull out the win. But there is much to be positive about for a woman who admitted that she is not yet 100 percent, and is still having sleep problems.

For now, though, she has the time to sharpen her fitness and her tennis ready for the grass and her home crowd.

Elsewhere, the top seeds in the women’s draw all advanced, with No4 Agnieszka Radwanska and No8 Angelique Kerber the first to make progress to Round 3 with easy wins.

Among the handful of seeds failing to make it to Round 2 have been Venus Williams, Julia Goerges, Lucie Safarova, Tamira Paszek and Klara Zakopalova, while former Grand Slam champion Svetlana Kuznetsova was perhaps not a surprise victor over No22 seed Ekaterina Makarova.

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