With shades of Jamie Murray and Jelena Jankovic in 2007, Britain will once again have an interest in the Wimbledon mixed doubles final on Sunday.
There was a carnival feel on No1 Court on Saturday afternoon as Guernsey’s Heather Watson and Henri Kontinen from Finland blew past Oliver Marach and Jelena Ostapenko in their semi-final 7-6, 6-3.
Watson and Kontinen, who had never played together in competition before this tournament, were smiling so much that it was hard to believe that a Wimbledon final was at stake. “I’m pretty happy – OK, very happy,” Watson, 24, said later. “I don’t know what to say, but I’m having so much fun on the court with Henri.”
“It’s been a lot of fun,” Kontinen agreed, “and the results are following.”
Watson met Kontinen through his coach, the British former player Chris Eaton, whose modest claim to fame was reaching the second round at Wimbledon in 2008. She admitted that she had tried to partner up with Kontinen for the French Open this year but her ranking had not been high enough to secure a place in the draw. At Wimbledon, which has more spots available, they made the cut. “God I’m glad we decided to play with each other,” she reflected, with a broad grin.
The progress of Kontinen and Watson to the semi-final had shown a mixture of skill and good fortune. The pair received a bye in the first round, and then won through again in the second round without hitting a ball when Elena Vesnina withdrew to concentrate on her surprise singles run. Next up though was Leander Paes and Martina Hingis, the reigning champions, and Watson and Kontinen showed their mettle in their first match together as they came through in three tight sets.
The semi-final against the Austrian veteran Marach and the 19-year-old Ostapenko, the 2014 Wimbledon junior champion from Latvia, did not begin propitiously. In the opening game Kontinen, a doubles specialist, surrendered his serve meekly with a double fault. They trailed for most of the set until they broke Ostapenko in the eighth game and held on for a tie-break. This was the turning point of the match: from 1-1, Watson and Kontinen won six points on the spin to take a decisive lead.
At this point, the volume of the crowd turned up a notch and Watson and Kontinen really started enjoying themselves. At each change of ends they were animated, laughing. What were they talking about? “Some pretty random stuff: sometimes it’s tactics, sometimes it’s life,” Watson said. When asked if she could be more specific, she demurred: “I don’t know if I can give you examples...”
Watson admitted that she has found the absence of pressure and expectation in the mixed doubles to be pleasantly liberating. She was bitterly disappointed to lose in the first round of the singles, going down 12-10 in the final set against Germany’s Annika Beck. Britain’s No2 singles player was two points away from victory and described the defeat as “one of the worst” she had experienced.
Watson, who has been a victim of Twitter trolls in the past, admitted later that she went on to social media to “punish” herself. There was, disappointingly, plenty of material to scroll through.
What a difference a week makes: now it’s Heather Watson, Wimbledon finalist. “How does that sound?” she said. “Pretty damn cool.”
The next opponents for Watson and Kontinen are the 15th seeds, Colombia’s Robert Farah and Anna-Lena Grönefeld from Germany. They will play on Centre Court on Sunday afternoon directly after the men’s final between Andy Murray and Milos Raonic. Watson only learned this fact in her post-match press conference. “That shows you how prepared we are,” she said, with a giggle.
What about a double success for Britain? “Hopefully it will be a good day for the Brits. A British double is the aim, if you ask me and Andy.”
For now, though, Watson and Kontinen just plan to stay relaxed. “We just go with the flow,” Watson said. “Henri’s a dream to play with, he’s so good. I just have to make that first ball and he does the rest basically. So we’ll keep smiling, having fun. Go about it the same way because it’s working.”
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