On a gloomy day on the south coast, there was a dark cloud over Heather Watson, who will head to Wimbledon with diminished levels of confidence after she continued her poor run of form by tumbling out of the Aegon International in the first round.
Watson cut a frustrated figure for much of an uneven contest, publicising her exasperation early in the second set when she chastised herself after one of many missed shots, and the British No2 could have no complaints about her 6-2, 6-3 defeat against Elena Vesnina. Finding herself on the wrong end of that scoreline against the world No53 a week before the start of Wimbledon raises some awkward questions.
As hard as the locals tried to lift her from the stands, Watson was unable to shake the torpor out of her system and it was a deeply unsatisfactory way to prepare for her home grand slam. “I definitely didn’t play well today,” Watson said. “I felt really out of timing and slow to the ball.”
Having come within two points of beating Serena Williams at Wimbledon last year, she ought to have been in a buoyant mood once the season switched from clay to grass. But the Watson who electrified Centre Court by giving the world No1 the fright of her life is nowhere to be seen at the moment. Ranked 50th in the world, and likely to slip a few places after this setback, the 24-year-old is straining in search of her best tennis, although she did say that she feels ready for SW19.
Watson’s grass campaign began with a first-round defeat against Magdalena Rybarikova in Nottingham, after which she revealed that she has been suffering from an abdominal strain, and although she beat Camila Giorgi in the first round of the Aegon Classic in Birmingham last week, Barbora Strycova sent her on her way in the second round.
On to Eastbourne, a chance to get some energy back into her legs and some enjoyment back into her tennis. Perhaps the sea air would have an invigorating effect.
Yet that rainy week in Birmingham has dampened her spirits. “I just want no rain,” Watson said. “I don’t mind if it’s cold. I just want no rain.”
The wet and misty conditions did not affect Vesnina, though. She dispatched Watson in an hour and 13 minutes of one‑sided tennis, offering her a lesson in ruthlessness. Watson was not clinical enough when she carved out opportunities, while her experienced Russian opponent was clinical every time she spied an opening. “When I had my chances to come back and get into the match, she hit an ace or always made her first serve and played well,” Watson said.
The fifth game of the opening set was critical. Vesnina saved three consecutive break points thanks to two aces and a crisp forehand winner, held her serve and broke Watson for a 4-2 lead. The 29-year-old faced more break points in the second set, as Watson attempted to muster some defiance, but she always had an answer and earned the decisive break for a 5-3 lead.
It was that kind of day for the Brits. Tara Moore, the world No229, almost caused a stir against Ekaterina Makarova but she was unable to convert two set points in the first set and dropped her serve with a double-fault to allow the Russian back in before losing 7-5, 6-4. Naomi Broady, meanwhile, was no match for Monica Puig, losing 6-1, 6-1 to the world No43.
At least there was one ray of sunshine courtesy of Laura Robson, who insisted on Twitter that she would be fit for Wimbledon despite withdrawing from her Eastbourne qualifier against Madison Brengle on Sunday with an injury in her right thigh. “Getting solid treatment on my leg and will be all good for Wimbledon,” the former British No1 said.
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