- Mike Dickson
Looking after No 1... Ambitious Watson aiming to stay top Brit
To gain an appreciation of how Heather Watson has become such a nuggety tennis player it helps to visit her at the place where it all started.
The IMG/Nick Bollettieri Academy on Florida's Gulf Coast is a very long way from her native Guernsey, but it was here that she arrived as a 12-year-old armed with a racket bag, a few mementoes of home and dreams inside her head.
'That's where I first stayed, it's actually a classroom now but it used to house several dorms,' says Britain's No 1 as she points at a whitewashed block of buildings in the middle of the campus.
'It brings back a lot of good memories.' She looks almost surprised when you ask if she suffered any homesickness, but then not for nothing has the 20-year-old already acquired a reputation as one of the WTA Tour's most durable and resourceful newcomers. And it helps that her three roommates back in those days, aspiring young golfers from South Korea and America – and another called Nicola Reynolds from Guildford – turned out to be friends for life.
'It was too much fun in the dorms to be homesick and those three were great, I think they would be the bridesmaids at my wedding if I ever got married. I just found the whole thing very exciting and I can't remember anything negative about it at all.'
Watson's parents Ian and Michelle had decided that if she was to be serious about her tennis she had to leave Guernsey and head for a place with a track record of producing good players and they plumped for Bradenton.
After three years her mother came to live there part-time and she moved out of the dorms to focus more professionally. Michelle no longer travels that much with her after a request this summer from her daughter that she have a bit more space.
Bathed in year-round sunshine and with an on-site high school, the academy turned out to be a decent choice, which is why Watson heads into the new season exuding such optimism, even by her own sunny standards.
When she flies to Auckland on Christmas night it will be as the world No 49, with a very particular plan as to how she will build on the success of the past two seasons that has come quicker than anyone expected.
Watson approaches each campaign with military precision and every December holds what might be termed an Annual General Meeting with her father, which can last three hours and features a devastatingly honest appraisal of the season just gone.
'We have to be absolutely clear about things and not hold back. It can get quite heated although this year's took only two hours because I reached my main target, which was to get into the world's top 50,' she says.
'For the coming season the soft target is to get into the top 30 and the ultimate one is to make the top 25. It would be great to be seeded for a Grand Slam, which sounds a lot but I believe in setting quite tough goals.'
There is also the incentive to ward off the rising challenge of Laura Robson, although she places that in a wider context. 'I would want to finish the year British No 1, not No 2, but I am focussed far more on what happens in the world rankings in general.'
Watson is currently ending her offseason training block in the company of her Colombian coach Mauricio Hadad and her fitness trainer Flo Pietzsch. On the day we meet she is practising with Alexander Sendegeya, a 16-year-old Liverpudlian based there who is trying a similar route to the top of the game.
After a festive visit from her mother Michelle, the three of them will take off for New Zealand knowing a big opportunity for ranking improvement presents itself. This is because she had a poor start to a season that ended with her becoming the first British player in 24 years to win a title on the main WTA Tour, the HP Open in Osaka.
'I went to Australia last year with half a sprained ankle that I did playing football and it was never going to be good in hindsight. The victory in Japan has really helped my confidence.'
Watson is relatively diminutive at 5ft 7in, but points out that Martina Hingis was no powerhouse either. 'The really positive thing is I've got to where I am with still so much that I can work on. I know I've got to get bigger shots and I'm using doubles to work on coming to the net, which is something I love. I know I am not that big but I have certain advantages with my speed and agility, and my mental toughness.'
Watson believes she is still three to four years off her best and will not rest until she becomes a factor more at the business end of Grand Slam tournaments.
Away from the court her ambition is to buy a flat close to Wimbledon and Roehampton's National Tennis Centre. 'London's expensive so I'm having to save up,' she says. 'I drove past those One Hyde Park apartments the other day. I might have to win a Grand Slam to afford one.
Photo by: AP