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Heather Watson happy to be on the grass of home

British star Heather Watson is taking great hope from the ‘exciting’ strength in depth in women’s tennis as she prepares to return to the Viking Classic in Birmingham today.

Great Britain's Heather Watson
Great Britain's Heather Watson

There were four new Grand Slam semi-finalists in the women’s singles at Roland Garros last week, while the last 17 major titles have been shared between 13 players.

And with Watson in the prime of her career at 29 years of age, she hopes the best days of her career are yet to come.

“It’s so exciting because you really don’t know who is going to win,” she said. “It makes me very optimistic with players like Zidansek ranked 85 getting to the semi-finals (at Roland Garros).”

The grass has been kind to Watson over her career – she was so close to beating a prime Serena Williams at Wimbledon in the singles third round of 2015 and lifted the mixed doubles title 12 months with Henri Kontinen – so she was pleased to get the surface back under her feet in Nottingham last week. She was positively buzzing with delight after her victory over Tara Moore in her first competitive match on home soil since Wimbledon 2019.

“It will give me a lot of confidence,” she said. “I’ve been practising the best I have this year so my game is in a really good place and it suits grass.”

After Nottingham, Watson moves on to the Viking Classic in Birmingham – but though fans are returning, normality is not quite there yet with players still consigned to a ‘bubble’ to prevent outbreaks of Covid-19 on tour.

“I’ve always had such a great experience at Birmingham,” she said. “Not just the tournament, but I train there part of the time and love Birmingham as a city. It’s a shame we can’t go out exploring with the weather so good, but I can’t wait.”

Watson remains grateful she has been able to get back out on the court, while so much of life remains restricted. But there is also no denying she found lockdown life tough – as well as the subsequent return to playing without fans. It is particularly tough on a player who had just won her fourth WTA singles title with five hard-fought matches in Acapulco, Mexico, when the coronavirus pandemic really began to take grip on the world.

That was the end of February 2020. She played one more the following week, but tennis – and her progress back up the rankings – were then halted in their tracks for five long months.

“I had just won my fourth title in Acapulco and then we all stopped,” she said. “I was in such a good place tennis-wise. I was feeling good so it felt like terrible timing just as I was finding my game again.”

During that absence, Watson says she ‘lost her identity’ - it has been hard to rediscover in empty, echoing stadia across the globe. “The things I love about tennis are the fans,” she said. “Without the fans, it’s not the same.”

It is not just the passion of the sport that has been affected by the pandemic, the business side has taken a hit too. While the French Open singles winners each picked up a cheque for just over £1.2milion, for those not much further down the rankings every win is vitally important in the battle to make ends meet.

Prize money has taken a hit during the pandemic, while the cost of Covid tests have been added to the endless succession of flights and hotels to transport and accommodate players at tournaments.

Already this year, Watson has been to the United Arab Emirates, Australia, Mexico, the United States of America, Madrid and Rome, before landing in the UK for the grass-court season.

“Of course I’m grateful (to be playing),” she said. “But it’s quite stressful and most weeks I will be making big losses. I’ve got to win matches.”

She won just the one match in Nottingham last week – losing against Katie Boulter two days after beating Moore – but if she can add more at Edgbaston over the next seven days, starting against Viktorija Golubic today, she might just find herself in position to put herself back in the conversation with the new wave of talent at the top of women’s tennis.

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