The Tours may be in their off-seasons but competitive tennis is still being played at the lower levels and Heather Watson is making the most of the opportunities.
A third Olympic Games would definitely mean a lot to me. Going to Tokyo next year is definitely among my biggest goals at the moment. I had already made the cut for Tokyo but now, with the one-year delay, things are going to be different. But, I am absolutely confident I can make the cut again. I am playing well and should be at my best soon. Heather Watson
The ITF Women’s World Tennis Tour provides entry-level and mid-level professional tournaments and provides a professional pathway between the ITF Junior World Tennis Tour and the WTA Tour.
The results of ITF tournaments are incorporated into the WTA Ranking, which enables professionals to progress through to the elite levels of women’s professional tennis.
Watson, the World No 59, was hoping to boost her confidence levels to end her season, having failed to win a match since she won her 4th WTA title in Acapulco in early March.
Watson was playing in the W100+H in Dubai where she was the No 3 seed in the singles, and she also teamed up with Anna Blinkova in the doubles.
The 28-year-old Brit has a strong track record at W100 events, having won titles at W100 level in Midland and Prague in 2014, and Vancouver last year.
She made short work of Aleksandra Krunić, a Serbian qualifier, in the first set of her opening round, but was made to fight for the second before coming through, 6-0 7-6(3).
In her second match, Watson scored an impressive 6-4 6-2 win over her good friend Kirsten Flipkens from Belgium to reach the quarter-finals.
She broke once in the first set and was unstoppable in the second, dominating Flipkens who was unable to get back on even terms.
“I am very, very happy with myself and the way I am showing improvement on a daily basis,” Watson told Gulf News. “We’ve known each other well and played so often against one and another, so it was always going to be tough dealing with her game.
“Coming in today I had to stay aggressive and keep spreading the play around the court and keep her unsettled as much as possible.
“The plan worked and that gives me a lot of motivation looking ahead,” she added.
Watson’s ploy worked well and breaks in the 3rd and 5th games saw the Briton lead 5-1 in the first, but the Belgian broke back in-between, holding serves to show signs of a fightback.
Watson, however, continued with her tactic of pushing her opponent around the court to serve out the set in 42 minutes.
The second was less complicated, with early breaks in the 1st and 3rd games, which saw the Briton going up 4-0, after which she kept her focus to wrap up set and match in an hour and 20 minutes.
“Her forehand from the middle of the court is among the most lethal. I had to make sure she didn’t get too many opportunities to settle in and dictate play. Added to this, I served much better as well,” Watson admitted.
Watson fell, however, in the quarters, to the No 5 seed, Kateřina Siniaková, 6-2 7-5.
The Czech was in total control in the first set but Watson but the second set proved to be much closer as the two went toe-to-toe before Siniaková eventually broke the Brit to moved into the semi-final in straight sets.
In the doubles Watson and her Russian partner, Blinkova, easily won their opening match against Georgina Garcia-Perez & Wang Xiyu, who were no match for them.
The Spanish/Chinese pair were dominated from the outset and although the second was a little closer, Watson & Blinkova comfortably moved into the quarter-finals where they dispatched the 3rd seeds Arantxa Rus & Rosalie Van Der Hoek.
The Dutch pair proved more a test but once Watson & Blinkova were able to break serve, they held the edge to take the opener.
The second set saw the Dutch pair try to get ahead, but Watson & Blinkova broke them again and moved into the semi-final, 7-5 6-4.
In the semi-final the Brit/Russian were stopped by Ekaterine Gorgodze & Ankita Raina, but it was a tight loss.
Watson & Blinkova forced a tiebreak in the first set in which the Georgian/Indian pair were outclassed and were only able to win just one point.
Gorgodze & Raina regrouped in the second, breaking Watson & Blinkova to level and take the encounter in a match tiebreak, which they dominated to move into the final 7-6(1) 6-3 [10-2].
Meanwhile, Watson remains hopeful of a rare hat-trick when the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games kicks off in Japan next year.
The 28-year-old, whose best result at the Olympics has been a mixed doubles quarter-final and a second round in the women’s doubles, is keen to see her third appearance for her country when the Games are staged in Tokyo from 23 July to 8 August.
The tennis tournament at the 2020 Summer Olympics will feature 172 players in 5 events, namely the singles and doubles for both men and women and the return of mixed doubles for the third consecutive time.
The Olympic Tennis Event is scheduled to be held at Tokyo’s Ariake Colosseum from 24 July to 1 August.
Arriving in Dubai for the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge, Watson was involved in pre-season preparations with former World No and Team GB player Andy Murray.
“He’s [Murray] has done a lot, not just for British tennis but for the sport worldwide,” Watson said. “We’ve spent a good six weeks getting ready for the challenges ahead and I feel I am on the right path as I continue learning all the time.
“I know that I just need to believe in myself and keep going and the results will follow. This is the mind set going deep into this week.”
Born on the island of Guernsey off the coast of Normandy, Watson has so far won 9 titles over her career, including mixed doubles crown at the 2016 Wimbledon Championships with Finland’s Henri Kontinen, becoming the first British woman to win a Grand Slam title since Jo Durie in 1991.
“A third Olympic Games would definitely mean a lot to me. Going to Tokyo next year is definitely among my biggest goals at the moment,” Watson told Gulf News following her first round win over Krunic.
“I had already made the cut for Tokyo but now, with the one-year delay, things are going to be different.
“But, I am absolutely confident I can make the cut again. I am playing well and should be at my best soon.”
In October 2012, Watson won her first WTA singles title at the Japan Open, becoming the first British woman to win a WTA singles title since Sara Gomer in 1988.
Watson started playing tennis at the age of 7 and by the time she was 12, she had moved to the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida to pursue a full-time career in the sport, transitioning through a promising junior career to win a gold medal at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games and then the girls singles at the 2009 US Open, reaching a career high No 3 in the world on the ITF Junior Circuit.
Back in Dubai, Sorana Cirstea won her first professional singles title in almost 5 years after defeating Siniakova in the final.
The World No 84 defeated Siniakova, ranked 22 spots above her, 4-6 6-3 6-3 in the final of the ITF World Tennis Tour event to make a long-awaited return to the winner’s circle.
“It’s been an absolute privilege to play tennis in such tough and testing times,” the 30-year-old Romanian told Gulf News. “It’s been a great week for me and hopefully I will be back to defend my title here next year.”
Cirstea collected her 9th ITF singles title and 10th career singles title overall, having also won a WTA crown at Tashkent in 2008, but her first since she won a 25k ITF title in Bertioga, Brazil in January 2016.
Raina & Gorgodze won the Dubai doubles crown earlier on Saturday after seeing off Aliona Bolsova Zadoinov & Kaja Juvan, 6-4 3-6 [10-6].
“It’s been an unreal week,” said Raina. “We were the last ones to enter the doubles, and here we are with the winners’ trophy in what I consider to be my home event.”