Heather Watson was leading Zhang Shuai when the Chinese retired at the Viking Classic Birmingham on Wednesday, advancing the British No 2 to the quarter-finals where she will play the No 3 seed Donna Vekic.
She is one of the nicest players on tour, nobody has a bad word to say about her, so I hope she recovers quickly in time for Eastbourne or Wimbledon. Even though she was hurting I was very happy with how I was striking the ball today, so hopefully I can bring that into my next match. Heather Watson
Down 5-2 in the first set, Zhang, the World No 36 who lost to Johanna Konta in last week’s Nottingham Open final, retired due to a leg injury.
Watson was in total control against Zhang, breaking her twice and smashing 7 aces as she cruised to a 5-1 lead but, after playing a sublime drop-shot winner to set up a sole set point, the Chinese rallied to hold serve.
After stopping for the second time in the match to get medical help for her heavily-strapped knee, the 32-year-old decided to throw in the towel and hand Watson a spot in the quarter-finals.
“From the first game, she wasn’t moving quite right,” said Watson. “I knew her leg was taped and I knew that was bothering her.
“I just made sure I focused really hard on my serves and returns and I actually hit them better than I have for a long time. It’s tough but you just have to pretend she is 100%.”
Watson had lost 3 of their previous 4 matches but hit 7 aces in 3 service games and broke twice before Zhang stepped off the court.
“She is one of the nicest players on tour, nobody has a bad word to say about her, so I hope she recovers quickly in time for Eastbourne or Wimbledon,” Watson added.
“Even though she was hurting I was very happy with how I was striking the ball today, so hopefully I can bring that into my next match.”
Later, Watson, who has had a torrid year prior to the grass-court season, said she has been inspired by Andy Murray after spending time with him at the National Tennis Centre in London recently, and was delighted to see him come through his latest comeback at Queen’s on Tuesday.
“He is someone who works so hard, and puts in the hard yards, the blood, sweat and tears and for all of the British tennis players that train at the National Tennis Centre and see him, he is a massive inspiration,” she said.
“I am really happy for him that he was able to play his match at Queens and second to get the win. I have seen him a lot in the gym, we park next to each other every day before we go to training.
“He just loves it so much, his whole day is just tennis, tennis, tennis.”
Her next opponent, Donna Vekic, reached the quarter-finals after the Croat beat Italy’s Camila Giorgi, 2-6 6-3 6-4 earlier on Wednesday, while former French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko and Russian 4th seed Daria Kasatkina are among the possible semi-final opponents on the same side of the draw.
In the thrilling three-set contest, Vekic bounced back after dropping the opener, sailing to a 5-1 lead in the third before the World No 54 let 5 match points slide by.
Eventually Vekic kept her cool to wrap up the match, watched by her dog, a miniature poodle cross called Mali.
“Camilla played great, she’s so fast,” Vekic said. “You know it is coming but you’re still surprised every time you face her. I’m really happy I was able to serve it out.
“After I lost those match points I just tried to stay aggressive and stay calm and focus on my serve.
“Mali means ‘little’ in Croatian and it’s great to have him here this week.”
Meanwhile, Kristina Mladenovic won the all-French battle with Fiona Ferro 3-6 6-3 6-4, while fellow Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia was dumped out by Czech Marie Bouzkova, 6-3 6-0.
Two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist Coco Vandeweghe from the USA beat Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic, 4-6 6-4 6-3.
The former top 10 player continued her resurgence, rallying from a set down to defeat the Aussie, who had upset top-seeded Elise Mertens in a gruelling 3-hour, three-setter on Tuesday that featured 3 tiebreaks.
She took the first set against Vandeweghe with the help of 3 double-faults by the 29-year-old American.
Vandeweghe used her serve to take control after that, winning 12 of 14 first-service points in the second set, including 5 of her 10 aces in the match.
Plagued by injuries, Vandeweghe reached 2 major semi-finals in 2017 and twice has been a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon. She earned her first tour-level, main-draw victory in nearly 2 years on Monday by beating Kristyna Pliskova in straight sets with the help of 13 aces.
She last won a WTA match in a tournament main draw in July 2019.
Once ranked as high as No 9, she is currently No 203 and will face No 50 Bouzkova in the quarters. after the Czech was down 1-3 to Garcia in the opening set, then won 11 straight games.
Tomljanovic was left frustrated as she was derailed by a stomach complaint and a rejuvenated opponent.
The Australian No 2 felt unwell in the heat and ended up losing to the big-hitting American.
“I had a pretty bad stomach ache,” Tomljanovic told AAP. “It started at the beginning of the match, but near the end of the second set, it was getting worse.”
Tomljanovic had already talked to the doctor on court and, while Vandeweghe was having a medical time out after accidentally cutting her left hand, the Australian asked if she could leave court to take a bathroom break at the same time but her request was turned down.
“I guess the ruling was I couldn’t do it because she was serving next. I was told if I went over the time limit (if I left court), then I could end up getting warned and time violations, so I didn’t.”
Vandeweghe is a dangerous customer on the grass and went for her shots in the third set shoot-out.
“In a way, this is her surface, she’s done well here before even though she’s on a comeback,” said Tomljanovic.
“Coco doesn’t play like whatever her ranking is (currently 203). I just look at it as a maybe a bit unlucky to play her second round after such a good win [over Mertens].”