Australian Open: Open era gives fresh hope for Watson in Melbourne

Heather Watson is in the main draw of the Australian Open for a seventh time.
Heather Watson is in the main draw of the Australian Open for a seventh time.
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The unpredictability of the women’s game has kept Heather Watson believing she can still achieve her tennis dreams.

The 25-year-old is ranked 68 and has been repeatedly thwarted in her efforts to reach the second week of a grand slam.

Yet the sheer unlikeliness of Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens’ grand slam victories in 2017 has given those in the women’s draw the feeling that maybe it could be them.

“I think especially in the women’s game, it’s always changing,” said Watson.

“Your top-ten players, I couldn’t even name half of them because it changes all the time and I think that’s a really positive thing for the ones who aren’t up there. The men’s game, it’s stuck a lot of the time.”

This will be Watson’s seventh successive appearance at Melbourne Park, with her best showing a run to the third round in 2013.

She no longer counts herself among the young guns on tour, but with age and experience has come a more relaxed attitude.

“I definitely feel middle-aged,” said Watson.

“But in life I feel very young still, and I feel like I’ve got loads of tennis years ahead of me.

“So many of the players that are older than me are still there. The age is just getting older on the tour and I feel like even the young ones aren’t as young as they used to be.

“I feel less pressure. When I was younger, I used to be devastated and cry after losing matches.

“I’ve realised of course I give it my everything out there but it’s just a game. I definitely enjoy it a lot more.”

Watson has every reason to go into the year’s opening grand slam feeling upbeat after arriving in Melbourne fresh from a run to the semi-finals of the Hobart International.

In her first-round match tomorrow she will face Kazakh Yulia Putintseva, who is ranked a little higher at 54th.

The pair have played twice before and can boast one win each, with Watson coming out on top in their last encounter in Wuhan in 2015.

“She’s a feisty one,” said Watson. “I’m sure it will be entertaining. She’s feisty because she’s a fighter. I know that it will definitely be a battle out there. She had a really good year last year as well. It will be a tough match.

“I love competing. I feel like it brings out the best in me when it’s like that. Winning those matches and getting through those matches always feels a lot better.”

Watson is one of only three British players in the singles main draws, the fewest at a grand slam since the US Open in 2014.

Last year in Melbourne there were seven, but Andy Murray is sidelined through injury, Dan Evans is serving a doping suspension, Aljaz Bedene has changed nationality and Naomi Broady failed to qualify.

No other players have come through to take their place, with only four ranked high enough to get into the qualifying tournament and none reaching the final round.

“It’s unfortunate, especially Andy, who has just had surgery,” said Watson. “That sucks. I hope he heals quickly and gets back because he’s great for our sport in our country.

“But it’s not bad, not that dramatic a change. A couple drop out and then it’s, like, ‘Oh no, we’ve only got half left’.”

Jo Konta – who faces Madison Brengle tomorrow – is still working through the consequences of her dramatic slump during the second half of last year but goes into the Australian Open feeling positive once more.

“I think the rest that I had at the end of last year already helped with a lot of the issues that I was faced with,” she said.

“I feel confident enough in my own ability that I will get back to the level that I want to play and even better than that with time.”