Thursday, September 17, 2009

The promise of Heather Watson

I wish I could say that I saw Heather Watson play at the 2009 US Open. But the truth is that I did not. Having had my heart repeatedly broken by supposedly promising Juniors who somehow never seemed to deliver, I no longer invest as emotionally in the Juniors as I once did.

And lest you think that I am being just a fair-weather fan, let me assure you that I am not. You want proof? Well, I once flew all the way to Costa Rica to watch Scoville Jenkins (then a rasta) play in the Copa Del CafĂ© -- only to see him fold up like a wet blanket in an early round. And I truly (honestly, from my heart) believed that Jamaica’s Dustin Brown would have been a force to be reckoned with right by now. Yet, at the ripe old age of 23, he continues to reside among the bottom feeders. And let’s not talk about Alize Cornet. After she won the Girls Roland Garros in 2007, I jumped on her bandwagon faster than you could say freedom fries. But now I feel the urge to ask, what has she done for me lately?

So yes, I admit that I have somewhat given up, not on Junior tennis per se, but on my own ability to detect the cream that has the potential to rise to the top. My heart clearly gets too engaged. I wouldn’t recognize Junior potential if it served a forehand straight into my body.

Despite this personal failing, I did manage to do some circulating among the Juniors playing in New York this summer. I’d be lying if I said I knew most of the players I photographed. In fact, there was a randomness to my photography that had more to do being enamored of my new camera and less to do with the Juniors whose images I was attempting to capture for perpetuity.

And I admit that Heather Watson was not among them, not because I did not think she is talented, but because (again, being brutally honest), I was also more focused on looking for the American, Asia Muhammad. [I didn’t see her either]. And Heather also did not happen not to be playing during the random moments I walked by.

So I must admit that Heather’s triumph caught me by surprise. She won the US Open Girls Singles tournament, beating Russia’s Yana Buchina with a score of 6-4, 6-1. Heather accomplished this almost a year and a half after her compatriot, Laura Robson, won Junior Wimbledon, to screeching acclaim. The recognition of Heather’s accomplishment has been far more muted, don’t you agree? Maybe the Brits have also been burned by supposedly promising Juniors.

I’ve been especially intrigued by reports that Heather’s style of play is reminiscent of Martina Hingis. As far as I am concerned, that is one of the highest compliments anyone can pay any tennis player. This means that Heather won not through baseline bashing, but with the use of excellent placement and angles, tremendous anticipation, amazing footwork, and intuitive instinct, along with almost perfect court sense, and a high level of cunning and intelligence. These are great assets to have as a player.

Let’s admit it, for a while there, women’s tennis got taken over by power. Capriati, Davenport, and the William Sisters gave us the collective impression that if you didn’t have power, you didn’t have a chance. Hingis proved them all wrong. Sure you need power -- used judiciously. Serena’s power game against Clijsters was almost certainly going to lose her that match. And Melanie Oudin won the matches she did not because she was more powerful than her opponents, but because she figured out to use their power against them. And then open up that forehand and blaze it when she needed to.

I am intrigued to read that Nigel Sears, head women's coach at the British Lawn Tennis Association, is delighted with Heather’s progress. He has been quoted as saying that she has a complete game. For those with short memories, let me remind you that this is the same Sears who used to coach Daniela Hantuchova. Their apparently volatile relationship was once the fodder of ugly rumors. I remember him walking out during Daniela's error-strewn second-round match at the 2003 French Open. I remember how Daniela seemed so despondent, so crushed. I would hate to see the promise of Heather Watson compromised in that way.

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