Here is the most unexpected product of the gathering British momentum at Wimbledon: Heather Watson has reached the women's singles fourth round. Thanks to this straight-sets victory over Kaja Juvan, for the first time across the 42 grand slams she has entered in her career, the 30 year old has made it to the last sixteen. And she was quick to suggest that it was the British roll that had inspired her.
“We're a little tight-knit group, so we're a lot closer and very supportive of each other,” she explained. “Seeing them do well definitely spurs me on.”
How she used that spur. Because for 12 successive years her smiling acceptance of an early departure has become part of the Wimbledon furniture. Now here she is into the latter stages.
What’s more she is now drawn against the world number 94 Jule Niemeier, giving her a real opportunity to progress to the nose-bleed inducing heights of the quarter-finals. No wonder she sank to her knees the moment victory was confirmed with the most delightful of drop shots: she really didn’t see this coming.
“Mind, it wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t a bit of drama at the end,” she said with typical modesty. She was right there. Because after taking the first set on the tie break, in the second set she had raced to a 5-0 lead. This was not the Watson of old, stymied by self-doubt. This appeared to be a newly forged Watson, full of poise and drive and sizzling forehands.
Going against all accepted wisdom, it was her opponent who was the one whose shoulders were sagging. And it was Watson winning 11 points on the bounce, setting herself up to serve for the chance to enter the fourth round for the first time since she was in a winning position against Serena Williams in 2015.
At which point, her Slovenian opponent suddenly discovered her tenacity. She broke Watson’s serve, held her own, then put herself in a commanding position to break again. Her rejuvenation from a point of apparent certain defeat was causing real jitters among the crowd. Every time Watson put a ball in the net or sent a serve too long the oohs of disappointment tumbling from the stands seemed to be unwittingly sapping her resolve.
Watson had been here too often, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. At Wimbledon the widespread consensus has long been that was she is too nice to apply the necessary blows to finish off an opponent. Was this to be yet further proof that nice girls never finish first?
Then, suddenly, Watson found her inner champion. After recovering from a break point, she once again had the chance to serve for the match.
Against Williams seven years ago, this was the moment that nerves – and a lynx-eyed opponent – had overwhelmed her. But not here. Her winning point – delivered by a cunning, smart and above all courageous drop shot – was greeted with a thunderous roar. True, it was as much one generated by relief as triumph. But nevermind. Her grin as she raised her hands aloft in victory illuminated the court.
“Wow, what an atmosphere, there is nowhere I would rather do it than this,” she said as she was interviewed at the side of the court. “You guys got me over the line.”
Mind, Watson had started as if she was determined to put all her previous missteps behind her, winning her first service game with a flourish. Though her serve cannot ever be described as rocket propelled, she was placing it carefully, stretching her opponent, moving her round the court.
Adding in some audacious drop shots, she was soon in control. But Juvan, who reached the third round in 2021, was the first to break serve. The sinking feeling in the crowd was driven by the fear this would spark a rush of Watson self-doubt. Far from it: she broke straight back. And then, even better, went on to ease through the tie break with aplomb, producing on the way a couple of audacious drop shot winners that had those cramming No 1 Court roaring in appreciation.
It was not just the crowd who had noted the momentum. Suddenly it was her opponent, who looked as if she were suffering from old-school Watson syndrome. She seemed drained of hope. The harder she tried to produce a winner, the more often she was self-destructing, putting drop shots into the net, double faulting with frequency.
Watson appeared to be cruising. At 5-0 up, everyone thought surely even she could not blow it. She looked good too: compact, organised, together. But then, from nowhere, Juvan recovered and fought back.
“I felt like she was playing her best tennis at the end,” said Watson.
In the past it was generally at this point that she herself would crumble. But this time she didn’t. This time she fought against type. This time she was the winner.
And her – and the British – winning streak continued when she and Harriet Dart later beat the American Emina Bektas and her Slovakian partner Kristina Kucova 6-2, 6-4 to secure a place in the second round of the women’s doubles. Any more of this and they will be renaming the mound where those without courtside seats can follow the action on a giant television screen Heather Hill.