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Heather Watson slips under the radar in rise to prominence

Heather WatsonFor Heather Watson the last six months have brought something of an advance by stealth. In a nation where tennis hyperbole tends to be set at brayingly oppressive levels come the third week of June, Watson managed to become the youngest player in the women's top 100, when the Wimbledon draw was made, while sailing more or less beneath the mainstream radar.

In this regard it is tempting to see Tuesday's first–round match against France's Mathilde Johansson as a tipping point for the 19–year–old. Victory would see a likely second–round meeting with Julia Görges, the 16th seed, elevated into one of the blue riband domestic events of the opening week. Defeat might see Watson's fine work of the first half of the year rolled up into another Brits–bomb–out–in–SW19 horror story.

Little wonder Watson herself – a jarringly sensible teenage sports person – refuses to be drawn on the peculiar pressure of the immediate future. "Ever since January it's gone really well," she says. "I've gained a lot of experience. Wimbledon last year was my first grand slam and since then I've played every one.

"I am getting a little more attention from the media. I'm just going to focus on each match and doing the best that I can," she adds, switching briefly into a slightly ill–fitting strain of media–speak. This is not the natural Watson way. Beyond the recent ranking surge the other interesting thing about her is a palpable sense of being beneath it all just a normal abnormally talented teenage girl.

"I'm enjoying the game, staying focused, having fun," she says. "Lots of people put too much pressure on themselves without sitting back and seeing, we're playing tennis for a living and it's fun."

Watson was speaking at a function for the Sony Ericsson's Xperia Hotshots, a girl–band–ish sextet of marketable junior stars – the others are Sabine Lisicki, Sorana Cirstea, Alizé Cornet, Bethanie Mattek–Sands and Dominika Cibulkova. For Watson it is a chance to talk about things she likes doing: listening to music, the thrill of meeting one Trey Songz ("he's an R&B singer and he's really hot") and also revealing under questioning that she would not be averse to going bungee jumping with Johnny Depp ("it would have to be in pirate costumes").

Watson also unveiled a set of immaculately veneered union flag fingernails, a Wimbledon look she will share with her doubles partner Laura Robson, who is an interesting point of reference in Watson's own story. Of the two it is Robson, a former Wimbledon junior champion, who has borne a weight of public expectation, and also reaped the whirlwind of endorsement deals and casual fan fame. Plagued by growing pains, Robson has spent the last six months crunching around in reverse gear, while Watson, a year and a half older and a more naturally mobile athlete, has flowered.

Remarkably, they have never played each other, having been kept apart by seedings in junior tournaments. "We hit together quite a bit and we play doubles together," Watson says. "We keep in touch on Facebook and stuff. I guess we're maybe slightly different personalities off court."

There are poignant differences in background too. While Robson rose through the domestic LTA system, Watson has travelled more widely, to the extent that should she overhaul Elena Baltacha in the rankings, British tennis will have – along with Andy Murray – both male and female No1s whose formative tennis was learnt abroad. Watson left Guernsey aged 12 to attend the IMG Academy Bollettieri tennis program in Florida, having already excelled at junior sports most notably as a swimmer. "My parents sat me down and asked me is there one of these things you want to focus on. I chose tennis straight away."

It was in Florida that her game was honed – tactical intelligence, mobility and a strong serve compensating for a lack of extreme height. Currently Watson spends half her year in Florida, restricted to just two or three days a year in her native isle by the gilded schlep of the senior tour.

"Most of the girls are really nice," she says, revealing that she is still yet to speak to her childhood hero Serena Williams, despite competing alongside her at Eastbourne last week. "On the ITF [International Tennis Federation] tour it's more cut–throat because everyone wants to get on. Nobody talks to you there. But on the WTA [Women's Tennis Association] the girls are a lot nicer. I never get daunted. I'm not the type to be, whoa, star–struck. Being in the locker room with these girls I feel like I'm in their world now."

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