French Open 2016: Heather Watson eyes Olympics with tough opening win in Paris
Heather Watson beats Nicole Gibbs 5-7 6-2 6-2 in a rain-delayed match to book her place in the second round of the French Open
For the British No2 Heather Watson, ranked 56 and playing in her sixth French Open, her first match was not so much a game of two halves as one of three thirds.
Since main draw action began on Sunday morning, the weather in Paris had played havoc with the schedule. Watson, playing her doubles partner Nicole Gibbs, was due to get the British ball rolling—and there are seven Britons in the singles draws here—at around 1pm on Court 3 at Roland Garros, but rain through the early morning meant things began slowly and damply, and by the time the two women took to court, there was already drizzle in the air.
The advantage of the red dirt is that it is the most forgiving surface when things get wet, and as the first set edged through almost an hour, the rain became heavier, the umbrellas more numerous, the mood and the skies more gloomy.
Watson got a quick break for 3-1, only to lose it straight back. With the court and the balls growing heavier by the game, both struggled to hold serve, but it was Gibbs who finally held to avoid a tie-break, 7-5.
They continued, and both held firm through tough holds to reach 3-2—and then play all across Roland Garros was halted.
Three hours later, and under still-dark skies, play resumed, and it was Watson who came back the stronger, broke immediately, held to love, and broke a despondent Gibbs again for the set, 6-2. It had taken the Briton barely a quarter of an hour, but there was just enough time before the covers were hauled across the court for Gibbs to break for 2-1. They would have to come back Monday.
But torrential rain through the morning meant further delays, exacerbated by a preceding five-set marathon. Eventually, Watson got her moment, not in the sun though she did shine. She came out with all guns blazing, broke with four blistering winners in a row in the sixth game, and fought off break point in the next, coming to the net for a winning smash. At 5-2, she broke again, with another winning smash, for a swift conclusion, 6-2.
Watson talked afterwards not only of her exhaustion from lack of sleep, but of how difficult the conditions had been.
“Yesterday the conditions were very wet. It was raining most of our match. I think that really suited the way she was playing, because when it’s heavy, the ball is very slow and it stops. So with me trying to be aggressive, I have to win the point three or four times rather than just with one shot.
“Today I said to myself that the one thing I was going to do was just make sure I was calm and kept my focus for every single point and didn’t get too hyped up. Today was drier so it helped me a lot more, my balls went through and I hit a lot more winners.”
This is the fifth time Watson has reached the second round here, but this time the win is almost certain to have even greater consequences. She has earned enough points now to keep her inside the top 60 and thus as good as eligible for Olympic selection: very few can endanger her position with the cut-off date at the end of the French Open.
This is clearly a big deal for Watson, as she made clear before the tournament.
“Yes, it’s so close and stressful. A great motivation to win the first round. I have to! I loved the Olympics last time, it was the best experience ever for me. I loved everything that comes with it, meeting the other British athletes, foreign athletes, the village, being part of the biggest sporting event in the world, competing for your country, getting lots of cool kit, trading badges… Yes, really surprised to see players pulling out… I’d do anything to play!”
But that is three months hence. For now, she needs to recover from her gruelling two-day, three-part match. For she next faces the formidable No13 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, a powerful player who won the first of her Grand Slams at the US Open before she turned 20 and her second right here in 2009.
Watson said: “She’s a Grand Slam champion, been around a long time, and can be extremely dangerous on her day. I know clay is one of her best surfaces. She lives in Spain, and trains there. Yeah, I think she’s very comfortable on the clay, so it won’t be easy. [But] I think I’ve got a good game to give her some troubles.”
The rain finally cleared enough for three more Britons to take to court just at the time Watson was leaving.
Naomi Broady conceded an early break and four straight games to lose the opening set, 4-6, to Coco Vandeweghe, but she levelled in the second, 6-3. However with the late-arriving sun dropping to the horizon at 8.30, Broady again gave up a break lead in the third, and Vandeweghe broke again to lead 4-2. The American battled long and hard to a hold for 5-2, and served out the win, 6-3, after two hours.
The No82-ranked 21-year-old Kyle Edmund also played a qualifier, Nikoloz Basilashvili, and after conceding an early break, took the first-set tie-breaker, 7-6(4). But in a tightly-contested aggressive baseline tussle, Basilashvili took the second tie-break 7-6(7).
The Georgian served for the third set, only for Edmund to break for 5-5, and break for the set, 7-5. But Edmund stormed back to grab the win in an 18-minute, 6-1 set, and in the nick of time: play was halted for the night soon after.
No2 Andy Murray took on veteran qualifier Radek Stepanek, who took the Briton to three sets a matter of weeks ago on Madrid’s clay—and beat him at Queen’s in their previous match in 2014. He also took the first set here with his aggressive blend of all-court, doubles-honed tennis, 6-3.
Stepanek continued to mix it up beautifully in the second set, and two netted shots from Murray, first a drop then a forehand, gave the Czech the opening to break in the eighth game. With an hour and 25 on the clock, Stepanek held serve for 6-3 and a two-sets lead.
Murray raced through the third in 15 minutes, 6-0, as Stepanek visibly tired, but the Czech failed to get the match stopped for bad light. He would disappear for a comfort break, change his shirt and racket and receive a time-violation warning. However, this would not reach a conclusion until Tuesday.