Heather Watson still has the exuberance of youth, but time is marching on. It is now nine years since the 25-year-old from Guernsey made her first significant mark in tennis by winning the US Open junior title and six years since she won her first title on the main tour.
“I definitely feel middle-aged [in tennis career terms],” Watson said here on Sunday on the eve of the Australian Open, pointing out that there are players on the tour who are more than eight years younger than her. “In life I still feel young, very young, and I feel like I’ve got loads of tennis years ahead of me, but I’m definitely not the youngest on tour anymore.”
Watson, who will face Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva in her opening match on Tuesday, believes that experience has given her a more mature attitude to her work.
“As I’ve got older, I feel less pressure,” she said. “When I was younger I used to be devastated and cry after losing matches. I think as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that of course I give it my everything out there but it’s just a game at the end of the day. It’s not the end of the world and I don’t need to beat myself up over it. I’d say I was too much of a perfectionist and I’d say that didn’t help me out there.”
She added: “It’s just more being level-headed and not making it so results-orientated and it shouldn’t all just be about winning and losing. If I am out there and give my best for the match, everybody is out here giving their best. You can’t win everything. They are out there working as hard, trying just as hard as you.”
Watson said that the triumphs last year of Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens, who were unseeded when they won the French and US Opens respectively, had underlined how open women’s tennis is at the moment. “Everyone can play so well and it depends on the day,” she said.
Watson said her own hopes and ambitions had not changed over the years and that the fluctuating fortunes of those at the top of the game gave encouragement to everyone.
“Especially in the women’s game, it’s always changing,” Watson said. “I couldn’t even name half of the [current top 10] because it changes all the time. I think that’s a really positive thing for the ones who aren’t up there. In the men’s game, it’s stuck a lot of the time because you’ve got the ‘big four’ up there, although not right now. I think it’s positive. So much can happen. The women’s game is very up and down.”
Watson is pleased with her own form, having climbed to No 68 in the world rankings following her run to the semi-finals in Hobart last week. “Physically I’ve been fine, touch wood, and feeling very fit out there,” she said. “Tennis-wise, I’m just playing really aggressive. The conditions [in Hobart] varied. Some days there was wind and some days there wasn’t. That’s always good because when you have a windy day and then you go to a non-windy day you feel great.”
Watson is expecting a tough opening match here against 23-year-old Putintseva, who is the world No 54. Their head-to-head record stands at one win apiece.
“I’m sure it will be entertaining,” Watson said. “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.”
Watson said she relished the prospect of encounters with fiery opponents like Putintseva. “I love competing,” Watson said. “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.”
Last year brought mixed fortunes for Watson, who is hoping that her settled coaching set-up – she works when in Britain and on tour with Morgan Phillips and Colin Beecher, who is with her here, and with Pat Harrison when in Florida – will help her to be more consistent in 2018.
“I had no direction for so long,” Watson said of her time at the start of last year when she was between coaches. “I was just looking for that consistency in my practices off court so I could be happy and know what to work on. Now I’ve got that I’m in a really good place. I think being consistent is really important for me.”