In World No1 Serena Williams, the tournament welcomed back a two-time former champion for the first time in 14 years, and she would take on one of the young players who were beginning to headline a new generation ready to step up when the 33-year-old Williams decided to hang up her racket. Zarina Diyas, age just 21, had risen 129 places in the rankings last year, and was now seeded 28 after a quarter-final run in Dubai.
Another experienced Grand Slam champion in the draw, two-time Indian Wells finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova, took on another 21-year-old in the No42-ranked Sloane Stephens. The young American had reached a high of No11 in 2013, but seemed to lose confidence during 2014 to slip outside the seedings. Stephens’ best result last year, though, was her quarter-final run in Indian Wells, and she had already taken out the No13 seed Angelique Kerber this year.
One of the stand-out contests among the WTA Rising Stars generation was perhaps between 21-year-old No19 seed Garbine Muguruza and 22-year-old Karolina Pliskova, seeded 14. Both six-foot tall, both athletic, and with a match apiece thus far, their last meeting in Dubai was a cracker, taking almost three hours to go Pliskova’s way, 7-5 in the third set. And while Muguruza had taken Williams’ scalp at last year’s French Open, Pliskova would win two titles in 2014, plus two more finals this year—indeed she had won more matches than any other woman this season.
But leading the schedule on this hot Sunday was the only British woman in the draw, the popular Heather Watson.
It’s fair to say that the fortunes of Watson over the last eight or so months had been up and down. After some strong performances during the US Open Series, she lost in the first round of four straight tournaments and ended the year with just one win since New York.
Hit by a rib injury, she nevertheless began 2015 with a bang, a second career title in Hobart that took her to a career-high No38 in the rankings—but then another mini slump from the Australian Open and through the Middle East.
Come Indian Wells, though, and Watson was again starting to show her resilient, aggressive brand of tennis. With wins over Julia Goerges and then the No29 seed Camila Giorgi, she was already deeper in the hugely prestigious BNP Paribas Open than ever before.
Her problem was that she now faced the No7 seed Agnieszka Radwanska, who had beaten her in the second round here last year—and in their other two meetings as well. Not that Radwanska was in her best form, only going beyond the second round this year in her fourth-round run at the Australian Open. But the Pole’s experience at Indian Wells reflected her love of the hard courts: a finalist last year and also a previous semi-finalist and three-times a quarter-finalist in a draw as challenging as the Grand Slams.
Radwanska, for all her years of success both here and in the Majors—a final run at Wimbledon that took her to No2 in the rankings, no less—is only just turned 25 herself, but Watson is still only 22, has already bounced back from glandular fever and injury in her young career, and was more than ready for this latest encounter.
She, like Radwanska, can hit the ball deep and with great angles to forehand and backhand, and she has good enough touch to play and to pick up drop shots—which she had to do several times against the tactical guile of the Pole. But it earned her an immediate break and a 2-0 lead before Radwanska began to find some rhythm to level at 2-2.
Watson then showed that her fitness is on its way back to its best in the rally of the match, with drops and lobs on both sides, all retrieved. On the fourth break point, the Briton scored a decisive break that would see her through the set, 6-4. What’s more, she never looked like being broken again, and made 12 winners to seven from the Pole.
Not content with that, Watson repeated the story in the second set, taking a 2-0 lead before Radwanska again levelled things at 2-2. The Pole, in fact, won four straight games, running Watson ragged and forcing enough errors to take control of the match—but it would be temporary.
Radwanska played a loose seventh game with uncharacteristic errors that handed over another break. She then had Watson on the ropes at 15-40, but the Briton fired down two aces, a winning second serve, and held for 4-4 with four straight points. The Court 2 crowd loved it, and so did Watson.
She loved it even more when Radwanska hit a forehand hit wide to give Watson a 5-4 lead and the Briton served out the match with a love hold, 6-4.
As is her way, she beamed, and thanked the crowd for their support, before adding: “I absolutely love it here. What’s not to love?”
Indeed: for this is Watson’s first fourth-round Premier Mandatory run, and the first time she has not just won a match over Radwanska, nor won a set over Radwanska, but the first time she has beaten a top-10 player—at her 12th attempt.
It may be enough to take her to another career-high ranking, though she will want to continue this story a little further. However, she would have to wait to find out whether she played one of only three other unseeded players left in the draw in Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or the No12 seed Carlo Suarez Navarro.
Watson was the first to reach the fourth round in Indian Wells, quickly followed by the No23 seed Elina Svitolina, who beat No10 seed Lucie Safarova.
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BIOGRAPHY: Cesc Fabregas