After a fantastic start to the season, Guernsey’s Heather Watson heads to the Australian Open with hopes of reaching the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career.
The British number two has come close on many occasions, especially at Wimbledon, and reached the third round of the Australian Open in 2013. Agnieszka Radwanska got in the way five years ago, but this year it feels that Watson has a real opportunity to achieve her best Grand Slam performance. Here’s why.
Watson has won seven matches already on the singles tour this season. She made a steady run in qualifying at the Brisbane International, dispatching Danielle Lao and Misaki Doi in straight sets, before losing to Estonian’s Kaia Kanepi and Anett Kontaveit (as a lucky loser) in the proceeding rounds.
However, while results against Doi and Lao would have been expected, it’s her form in Hobart that’s been eye-catching. Facing more qualification rounds, despite being a former champion, Watson qualified to the main draw with less-than-comfortable results over Kimberly Birrell and Nao Hibino. After hurdling the challenge from Hibino, Watson’s performances got stronger and stronger as the week went on.
Her performance over third seed Sorana Cirstea was good – despite losing a 4-0 lead in the first set and successfully defending a set point at 4-5 – while her 6-2 6-2 victory over wild card Jaimee Fourlis was very professional. During her second round encounter, Watson showed she has the shot selection to outplay and outmanoeuvre opponents and saved all break points that she faced.
Her quarter final victory over Donna Vekic was excellent, but again the Brit showed signs of fragility in her game after letting a 6-0 5-0 lead slip to 5-4 in the second set. Ironically, it was arguably her semi final defeat over defending champion Elise Mertens that was most pleasing. Despite losing in three sets, Watson looked in control of her game and her form in the second set was scintillating. The big question now is, can she take this form to Melbourne?
Tricky opener but winnable draw
In the opening round of the Australian Open, Watson has drawn Yulia Putintseva. While the Kazakh will no doubt be a tricky opponent, Watson does have the quality to overcome her, especially if she plays like she did in Hobart. Putintseva has won just one of her three matches this season, albeit an impressive straight sets victory over Naomi Osaka, so isn’t going into Melbourne with the best form.
Looking further down the line at the draw, Watson could face an out-of-form Kiki Mladenovic or Ana Bogdan in the second round, with Madison Keys the seed in the potential third round. There is no guarantee that Keys, who has not been in the best form since the US Open, will make it that far, leaving Watson the potential task of one of Polona Hercog, Ekaterina Alexandrova and Qiang Wang.
This is a good draw and the fact that Radwanska or Serena Williams won’t be in the waiting line at round three has to be encouraging for Watson. If Watson is to make 2018 her most successful year, then she has the skill, ability and form to start it at the Australian Open. First of all, however, she has to navigate the tricky Putintseva.