Just a minute into her first match against a top-100 player, Emma Raducanu stepped to the right side of the baseline and curved a slick slice serve out wide. At 17 years old, Raducanu is the biggest young British prospect in the women’s game and she has shown why this week at the Battle of the Brits, her meaty serve and groundstrokes dominating throughout.
But this time, her first serve actually came back. In a flash, Heather Watson stepped forward to cut off the angle before deflecting all its pace for a screeching down-the-line forehand return winner. It was an omen. Like Johanna Konta, this week at Roehampton marked Watson’s first competitive outing since March and rust caked her game in earlier bouts against far lower-ranked opponents. Across the net from Raducanu, she finally came alive, producing by far the highest level of women’s tennis this week to win 6-2, 6-4.
From the very first game, Watson easily dealt with Raducanu’s enormous strokes, smothering the baseline, taking the ball early and effortlessly flipping from defence to offence. Her performance was also a reminder of what distinguishes the best players – many have showcased good tennis this week, but it is in the awkward positions around the court, when uncomfortable and under pressure, that players of Watson’s calibre thrive.
It should be a relief for Watson to find a decent level so quickly because the timing of the tour shutdown was particularly unfortunate. Watson entered lockdown in the midst of a revival following a mid-career slump. After struggling for much of last year, by October she had fallen out of the top 125 with a rancid run of form that included an eight-match losing streak. That month, her fortune turned with a final in Tianjin. In February, only a week before the world began to shut down, she won her fourth career WTA title in Acapulco.
Now ranked 50th in the world, Watson is playing some of the best tennis of her career. Rather than relying on her athleticism and intelligence around the court, which can leave her vulnerable to being blown clean off it, she is trying to move closer to the baseline and to take the ball earlier when she can. She will return to the WTA exactly where she wants to be, both in striking distance of her career-high ranking of 38th and on track to fulfil her goal of contesting her third Olympics in Tokyo.
If things go to plan, Watson will compete in Lexington on 10 August and then at the Western & Southern Open, which has been moved from near Cincinnati to New York, before the US Open which starts on 31 August. Asked about the risks of competing in a country with 66,000 new coronavirus cases a day, Watson was unmoved: “My thought process is: ‘If they’re gonna have the tournament, it’s gonna be safe for us to be there, otherwise they wouldn’t take any risks.’”
Not every player is as willing to trust the judgment of tennis authorities that would lose millions of dollars if the US Open is cancelled. On Thursday morning in Australia, the world No 1, Ashleigh Barty, announced her withdrawal from the US Open, citing “significant risks” with coronavirus and an unwillingness to put her team in harm’s way. Simona Halep, who is ranked second and has already expressed similar doubts, is not entered into the Western & Southern Open and is likely to follow.