In the list of sporting triumphs for Britain in 2012, from Bradley Wiggins seizing the Tour de France to Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis astounding at the London Olympic Games, one story was lost along the way – that of Heather Watson, a 20-year-old from the Channel Islands. In October, Watson became the first female British tennis player in 24 years to win a WTA Tour title. The last time that happened, in 1988, Margaret Thatcher was prime minister and Watson hadn’t been born.
“People were surprised, and were asking me why it had taken so long for a British girl to win. I don’t know the answer to that, all I know is that I won because I’m hungry to succeed,” says Watson. “If you don’t feel hunger, you don’t succeed at anything. With tennis, no one’s going to give it to you. You have to be determined. I was, and I’m sure that’s why I won.”
Her victory came in the Japan Open, when she beat Taiwan’s Chang Kai-cheng. “It was like everything came together in that tournament. My coach said to me in the first week: ‘Heather, you’re playing well enough to win this.’ He was right. My confidence was high and my game was good. I’d got to the stage in my career when I’d made a lot of mistakes along the way and was now learning from them.”
Watson was delighted that it happened in the final tournament of the season. “Usually, you have to pack up and go on to the next tournament,” she says. “Wins and losses just blur into one as you move around the world playing matches. But this was different. I got the chance to enjoy the victory and think about what it means.” What does it mean? “It means I know I can win.”
Her prize money was $37,000, and the win broke her into the world’s top 50 for the first time. But who is Heather Watson? Where did Britain’s number one female tennis player come from?
Her story starts in 1992 in Guernsey, where she was born. Her parents were keen sportspeople who encouraged their four children. “I did everything – swimming, dancing and badminton as well as tennis. It was always tennis that I really loved, though.” At six she started weekly tennis lessons, and, at nine, she played in her first tournament.
“It was my dad’s idea,” she says – her father, Ian, had asked her if she wanted to concentrate on tennis rather than playing so many sports. “I remember him saying ‘You’re good enough to make it … it’s all about whether you want to do it.’ I did. So he started entering me into tournaments.” As Watson improved, finding the right opposition on the small island was tough, so the Lawn Tennis Association paid for her to fly to Jersey once a week on a 16-seat plane with three other tennis players. They’d train in the evening, stay overnight, train again and fly back in the morning. Watson would go straight to school.
Soon, even Jersey became too small for her talents, and so, when she was 12, she left home for the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida. Bollettieri trained Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Monica Seles and Anna Kournikova. “I was desperate to go,” Watson recalls. “I’d got my bags all packed and ready about two months in advance, I was so excited.”
Wasn’t it frightening for a 12-year-old to be living apart from her family? “No, it really wasn’t. I wasn’t at all scared. I loved it,” she says. “There were five of us in the dorm and it was brilliant. I have only happy memories. I’ve always been very independent. I’m not the sort of person who’s ever got homesick. I loved the fact that it was all so competitive – and I loved the great weather because we could play tennis all the time.
There was one unwelcome surprise, though. “Everyone was really good,” she says. “Better than me. I don’t think I was prepared for how good they’d be … so I worked hard, trained hard and tried to catch up with them.”
Watson’s diligence paid off. In 2006, she won the British U14 Championships, followed, in 2007, by the British U16 Championships. In 2008, her mother Michelle gave up work to accompany her on the junior circuit. But it was her 2009 victory in the junior US Open, when she was 17, that signalled a step change. “That’s when I got the proof that I could do this,” she says. In 2011, she came close to beating Maria Sharapova, world No 3 at the time, in the US Open. “I realised that even though there are a lot of great players around, they are all just human, they make mistakes,” she says. “It was an important lesson.”
That experience of running Sharapova close was great motivation. But she was also driven to train harder when Andy Murray failed to name her as his mixed-doubles partner for London 2012. Murray chose Laura Robson, even though Watson was more highly rated. “It was the Olympics so of course I wanted to play, and I was a bit fed up at the time. Having said that – it was his decision and they did brilliantly for the country [they took silver], so I’m not complaining. It just made me work harder.”
With the Tokyo triumph the reward for that drive, what will the country’s newest tennis star do next? “I need to keep working harder than everyone else,” she says. “That’s what does it in the end … I’ve just played Wii Just Dance on the computer with my fitness trainer and I was desperate to win. I want to win at everything.”
She and her father will be sitting down next month to set her ranking and fitness targets for 2013. “It’s important always to have something to aim for. My dad is my motivator, he pushes me.”
Away from tennis, Watson admits to being in thrall to fashion. “I love looking at different styles and wearing different types of clothes. My favourite designers are Alexander McQueen, Vera Wang and Matthew Williamson. But the thrill of designer clothes is nothing compared to the thrill of winning in tennis. That’s where my heart really is – in trying to become the best tennis player in the world.”