• US Open

All change for Watson with Bouchard test up for grabs

Michael Beattie
August 24, 2014
Heather Watson faces Romanian world No.81 Sorana Cirstea in the first round at the US Open © Getty Images

It was just one of those weeks for Heather Watson.

No sooner had she picked up her first WTA doubles title at the Baku Open in early August than she set off on the 24-hour journey from Azerbaijan to the United States and the Citi Open in Washington.

A chill had settled in by the time she stepped out on court to face Kirsten Flipkens in the first round shortly after 10pm; two hours, and a tough call in the decisive tie-break later, the Belgian had ground out a 6-3 1-6 7-6(3) victory. Midnight was long gone on the American east coast. Back in Baku, and in Watson's jetlagged head, it was Wednesday morning, 9.30am.

"God, it was a close one," she sighed the next day, still smarting at another one that got away. After reaching the semi-finals at Eastbourne back in June, the British No.1 had lost four of her next five singles matches.

"It's felt kind of foreign to me, compared to how the start of the year has gone. I'd forgotten that feeling, and I don't like it, so I'm back out practicing again."

Watson is nothing if not a grinder. The 22-year-old is one of the fittest athletes on the tour, with a smile and laid-back demeanour that mask a laser-focused tenacity. Washington was her 15th tournament of a 2014 season, after which she came through qualifying to reach the main draws in both Cincinnati and Montreal, where she battled past Dominika Cibulkova to reach the last 16.

Back in Baku she collected her fourth title of the year, joining the two singles crowns and another doubles win claimed at the second-tier ITF level. Her position among the world's top 50 is hard-earned.

Heather Watson battled past Dominika Cibulkova to reach the last 16 in Montreal © Getty Images

On court, however, it is that reputation for tenacity that threatens to hold her back. A counter-puncher by nature, she landed her first WTA title in Osaka back in 2012 - the first for a British woman since 1988 - and has a career-high ranking of No.39.

Now firmly installed as the British No.1 in Laura Robson's absence following wrist surgery, Watson will be joined by fellow Brit Johanna Konta in the women's draw at the US Open, both having qualified by right. But Watson sees the rank as a cursory accolade - what matters is her standing among the WTA's elite. She arrives in New York as the world No.45. To go further, Watson knows she has to beat opponents who refuse to beat themselves.

Romanian world No.81 Sorana Cirstea awaits in the first round at Flushing Meadows, with the prospect of a showdown with Wimbledon finalist Eugenie Bouchard on hand for the winner. A year ago, Bouchard would have been considered the anti-Watson - she is a first-strike player, keen to end points swiftly and decisively - but the Canadian is now a foil for the switch to attack that Watson has been nurturing in 2014.

"I've become a lot more aggressive, stepping in the court, playing the fearless tennis that I much more enjoy playing than the way I used to play," Watson said. "I didn't think with my old game I was going to get past a certain level. This game is what's going to take me a lot higher."

A change in approach prompted the arrival of new coach Diego Veronelli, an Argentine with a history of adding all-court elements to the games of compatriot Paula Ormaechea and Brazilians Joao Souza and Rogerio Dutra Silva.

"I told him what I wanted from working with him," Watson said. "He told me what he saw in my game and what he could improve, what he could add to it. Being more aggressive was my idea, but adding everything else that came with it was Diego's.

"We both shared our thoughts and we both wanted the same thing - for me to add things to my game like the slice, coming forward to the net. I wanted to be stepping inside the baseline and hitting winners, but he added coming in to finish the point. I can volley and play well at the net, but I just wasn't using it because I wasn't being aggressive enough with my baseline game."

In rewiring her tennis, Watson has become something of a magpie. "I like to watch tennis," she admits. "When it's on, I want to see who's playing and see how they're playing. I'm very, very interested.

"There's no particular player in the men's or women's game I want to be - I just like different things I see from different people's games. I pick and choose things that in my mind will help me with my game."

The process has not been easy. It's akin to actively changing your handwriting or running style - something so ingrained, so hard-wired, that to undo what is in place is a mental challenge laced with frustration, doubt and disappointment.

In this regard, she is far from the finished article. Of her 14 defeats this season, six have come in three sets, many in winnable matches. But watching Watson step into the court and toy with the fundamentals of her game at this stage in her career is both bold and wholly understandable. She has years before she reaches her prime, and she has a vision of the player she wants to be when she gets there. To her mind, this is the only way to improve her chances of kicking on towards the world's top 25 and beyond - and to her mind it is working.

"I would say it's going very well," she said. "I've won two singles tournaments and two doubles tournaments this year - one being a WTA doubles title. I've gone from 157 in the world to No.45 and I'm very happy with that - but obviously there's a long way to go. I'm still working hard."

With Heather, that's a given.

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