(Note: I apologise for the late arrival of this post. There was a bit of a faff over which website it was going up at!)
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The worst time to be ill in tennis has to be at a Grand Slam.
And right now, no one knows that better than British number one Heather Watson. On day two of the Australian Open, a promising match-up against Tsvetana Pironkova turned from highly winnable into a nightmare, as a hampered Heather bit the dust. 6-4 6-0, and her tournament was over almost as soon as it had begun.
In Heather’s words: “It sucks.”
But we can’t forget what went before. As recently as Saturday, Watson was victorious in Australia, disembarking from the Hopman Cup exhibition event to head straight to her second WTA title.
That victory in Hobart is part of a comeback process for the Brit that points out a valuable lesson…
It started before the glandular fever.
Not the lesson, but the dip in Heather’s form.
It seems like only yesterday that the BBC’s hyped up teenager Hev was inching up the rungs of the WTA ladder. She did well for herself, working away painstakingly on the ITF tour in order to make herself eligible for the pro-level contests.
And do that she did. No girl who left home, alone, for Florida at age twelve is going to toss away their career. Heather’s grit, determination, and the gradual unearthing of her potential got her plenty of slots in WTA tournaments. Before she hit twenty, she had a nice amount of main draw experience, and by twenty-one she had gathered a fair few Slam wins – endearing herself to her nation by reaching the Wimbledon third round.
The Guernsey-born player even won her first WTA title at the end of 2012 – at the Japan Open, Osaka. It came as a surprise – giant slaying Laura Robson, Heather’s younger compatriot, was seeded at the tournament. But an early upheaval of the seeds flew Heather to the final, where she saved four championship points to prevail.
In an interview shortly after that final, a typically bubbly Heather was asked what her next goals were. Innocently, the young player stated her desire to win some of the next level events – the Premiers.
And that’s when I thought that, perhaps, Watson thought she was ‘there’ already.
Now, by ‘there’ I don’t mean the elite top. I mean ‘there’ as in a safe ‘there’. An I’m Top Fifty And I’m Not Rolling Backwards ‘there’.
It seemed that Heather, whether or not she realised it, had – in her mind – consolidated herself as a stayer. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that sort of self-belief and positivity is what you need to be fighting it out at the top level twenty-four seven.
But Heather wasn’t quite ‘there’.
The fact is that, while Heather had been regularly notching up first and second round victories here there and everywhere (because she seemed to be everywhere), these confidence-boosting wins hadn’t come over players of any prestige. She struggled regularly against women ranked inside the top thirty. Even the top forty and fifty.
Renowned for her gutsy comebacks in the face of defeat, the somewhat biased British – and beyond – didn’t take into account that these ground out triumphs came against opponents that Heather should not have been struggling against.
The aforementioned WTA title that she won – all credit to her – came via an open draw, in which her only seeded opponent was the number six (and extremely unpredictable) Anabel Medina Garrigues. The four saved championship points came against Kai-chen Chang, the world number 134, in a 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 win.
Looking deep, you may wonder how anyone with such ambition as Watson could think they were doing fine at that point. But looking purely at the results, and the effort poured into her game, it’s no sin if Heather did.
Shortly after the Japan Open, she hit her then-career high of world number thirty-nine. She stalled soon after that, bobbing around at the edge of the top fifty. Neither making progress, nor falling too far back.
And then came the glandular fever. Having felt the effects of it in the first half of the 2013 season, Watson discovered she had the illness at the beginning of April. Subsequently, she took a few month’s break from the sport.
The rest of that season was a non-event for the unfortunate player, as a struggling Heather Watson tumbled down the rankings.
And so, we have the moral of the story. A lesson that could be applied to many careers, but one that few would consider:
Sometimes, you need to fall down in order to rise up.
It seems an incredibly cruel thing to say to anyone, really. You can’t wish hurt on someone, whether or not you think it’s for their own good. Heather cannot have found the painful slide she took down the rankings and her health at all uplifting. Even now it ultimately comes down to her as to whether this assessment of events is correct in her case.
But it certainly makes sense.
Heather had hit a ceiling. Quite possibly, she thought she was moving upwards, when she had frustratingly stalled. With the talent to get much further, a temporary road-block was re-directing her back the way she had come.
And so, as a new season began, Heather started from the bottom. And she did it like a champion. With nothing to lose, a clear mind, and a reassessed situation, she returned to the ITF courts. Courts that had once been an exciting prospect of future success, but were now an ugly sight – one which she admitted to thinking she would never encounter again, after her Osaka triumph.
Over the 2014 season, Heather fought with and conquered depression. She turned her defensive game into attack. She won ITF titles. She worked with a focus fired by her absolute refusal to accept anything less than her best.
She re-entered the top one hundred. She claimed her first top twenty victory, en route to her first Premier-level semi final. She pushed the girls at the top of the game, and came away with regular triumphs against impressive players. She didn’t hold back from making necessary changes surrounding the furtherance of her career – just as she didn’t hold back from leaving her home, ten long years ago.
And the culmination of all these endeavours was her crowning triumph at the Hobart International last week. In contrast to her first WTA title, she took out three seeded, recognisable players, and didn’t drop a set. Today, she sits at a new career high ranking of thirty eight.
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This same turn of events could still prove to be the making of many. Sloane Stephens is an example in much different terms to Heather Watson. Having also lost on Aussie Open Day Two, she will now take the tumble down the rankings she has been begging for the past few months, as inability to consistently perform at her top level has cost her (or, as is often the case now, inability to perform at all.)
Sloane is quite the mystery of the WTA tour. None of us know exactly what’s going on inside her carefully-caged mind. But if it’s true that the Don’t Care image is a front, to hide the I Care Almost Too Much inner self, then a start from scratch may be the perfect remedy for the American. Blow it all away, breathe deeply, and start again.
In Heather’s case, at least, it appears that her struggles have produced some good. That they have propelled her upwards in a way that, most probably, could not have been attained, had she stayed drifting among the world number fifty-something wanderers.
And, as a testimony to her work ethic and smart decisions, she won’t stop here.
I’m not an expert on these proverbial sayings, but wasn’t there something about every cloud having a silver lining?
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(Same as ever: Thanks for reading, comment and follow! The Australian Open has some pretty interesting stories going on right now, and you can guarantee there’ll be opinions and insights over here in the next few days!)