The first time Heather Watson saw her dad cry was when she left for boarding school, aged 12. She flew from her home in Guernsey — where her dad, Ian, was the managing director of Guernsey Electric — to a top-class tennis academy in Florida and would live there without her family until she was 18. “He put me on the plane and cried. I was like, ‘Dad, don’t worry, I want to go, I’m so excited,’ but at that age you don’t realise that your parents are in bits. They did it for me and that was a huge sacrifice for them, emotionally and financially.”
The 25-year-old British number three is competing at the Nottingham Open today, high-fiving her doubles partner with a grin every time they win or lose a point. Watson, who is third to Johanna Konta and Naomi Broady in the British women’s rankings, last year became Britain’s first female Wimbledon mixed doubles champion since Jo Durie in 1987. The last time a British woman won Wimbledon singles was a decade before that — Virginia Wade in 1977.
Watson’s Florida tennis school, the IMG Academy Bollettieri, whose alumni include Andre Agassi, Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, has paid off. Watson’s dad may have found it heart-wrenching to say goodbye but the future tennis champion spent her school years living Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. “I don’t feel I missed out because it was like a sleepover every night. My best friends from there are still my best friends today. I still train there now.”
When we meet in Nottingham, Watson is exhausted, having just come off court at 8pm, chuffed with her victory but also looking ahead to Wimbledon. “Oh, Wimbledon! I look forward to it, to being at home, every year.” Watson has abandoned her old pre-match rituals for the sake of her sanity. “I used to be superstitious. I’d have the same meal the night before or I’d have to sit on the same side of the court, but I just don’t do that to myself any more because I’d go crazy."
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Watson is doing six hours of training a day on the court and in the gym but will do less as it gets nearer to crunch time. What specialist tennis pro diet is she on to prepare her for victory? “I have no rules, I love my food and I eat a lot,” she says. “The way I play uses a lot of energy because I’m smaller than lots of players [5 ft 7in] and not as big a hitter, so my rallies are longer. So I treat myself to desserts and if I’m hungry I’ll eat. Lots of fruit and veg, of course, but if I had fish and pasta for lunch I wouldn’t want something so carb-y for dinner so I’d have meat.” Watson stays off the booze when training. “The only time I do drink is when I’m out with friends... which is hardly ever,” she laughs sheepishly.
With a rigorous training regime and lots of travel — “I’m on the road a lot and it can get quite lonely” — when she has free time, it’s spent on the sofa watching reality show Love Island — and sleeping, says Watson. “A good nine hours of recharging is the perfect amount.” It also helps that her Redditch-born boyfriend Lloyd Glasspool, who sits in the front row during the Nottingham match, is also a tennis player. “We know what each other goes through,” she says. “We get the highs and the lows and we help push each other. We listen to each other about how we play and what we could change.”
Watson is fierce when it comes to doubles but enjoys singles less. “Singles is a lot more serious for me, I forget to enjoy them because I put so much pressure on myself. When I’m playing with a partner I know that having lots of energy and enthusiasm isn’t just for myself, it’s for somebody else, too. That spurs me on.” The perfect doubles partnership, she says, is down to good communication — she won the mixed doubles at Wimbledon with Finland’s Henri Kontinen, and she says friendship is also key. “Naomi Broady, who I often play with, is one of my best friends off court, so neither of us is offended at anything. We just tell each other how we are doing and we aren’t worried. If you don’t know someone so well, that’s harder.”
As an athlete, pressure is something Watson is very familiar with — particularly as a woman. At Wimbledon last year she lost an exhausting three-set match against German Annika Beck, ranked 55 in the world, and was subjected to a barrage of online abuse about her weight and appearance. Does Watson feel the pressure to look good all the time, to glow rather than sweat, to wear a flattering tennis dress?
“We tennis girls are all fit and healthy but we’re on the court with no make-up, and sweaty — we aren’t celebrities who have people on hand to do make-up all the time. I actually love wearing sports clothes, having my hair tied up in a bun, not wearing make-up and I think more girls should feel comfortable in their own skin and not have to cover themselves in make-up all the time. I do love putting on make-up but you don’t have to wear it every single day and you don’t have to change your body to look like pictures you see on the internet.
“Sometimes I wish I could look cute on court but you can’t, you’re just hustling and fighting and that’s the job we have and it just shows that we’re strong and that sport isn’t just for boys. And sport definitely isn’t about looking perfect.”
Heather Watson is playing Maryna Zanevska at Wimbledon at 3.45pm today