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Heather happy, healthy and on the road back

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(Championspk)Finally healthy and happy to be back on court competing, Heather Watson was nonetheless tense when she took to the court for her first round qualifying match at Apia International Sydney 2014.

The Brit was taking on an experienced opponent in Johanna Larsson of Sweden, and soon found herself down a set on an outer court at the Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre.

“In the first set I was very anxious, very nervous, and not playing my usual tennis,” she reflected.

“But in the second set, I just thought ‘screw it, hit the ball’. And then it worked.”

Sure enough, the former world No.39 stormed back to claim a 4-6 6-0 6-1 victory, a result which sets up an intriguing clash with qualifying top seed Bethanie Mattek-Sands on Saturday.

Watson, from the English Channel island of Guernsey, currently sits at world No.121 after a 2013 season marred by debilitating illness and several injuries. The 21-year-old didn’t play for more than two months between Miami and the French Open after being diagnosed with glandular fever, and upon her return, was unable to win back-to-back matches for the rest of the season.

Throw in a pair of injuries – one to her elbow, the other her adductor – and it proved a year to forget for the player who was until recently the British No.1 and the first player from her nation in 24 years to win a WTA title (Osaka, 2012).

“I feel a lot better to be back. It was a really tough year for me last year, but it’s made me a much stronger person,” she revealed.

“Everybody has their ups and downs, I’m grateful that I’ve only had one down, so far, to set me back. But it’s helped me in other ways – it’s made me grateful for every time I do win a match. And I’m not going to give anything away now.”

Such a positive mentality and strong-willed outlook is simply another reminder of why tennis is lucky to have the bubbly Brit back in action.

With a sunny personality and a stylish game to boot, Watson is popular both in her homeland and around the globe. Fans have taken to her calm demeanour, athletic game and compact strokes, a combination that has already taken her to the third round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

Watson even received a post-match hug from an enthusiastic British fan following Friday’s qualifying victory over Larsson.

“I know Liz, I’ve seen her at a few tournaments so it’s really nice to have somebody from home supporting,” she said.­

“I absolutely love playing here (in Australia). In fact, last Australian Open, I had the best support. I was on a court outside, it was quite small, but there still managed to be no space at all for anybody else to come and watch.

“I think there’s quite a lot of Brits over here in Australia, and that helps. I actually have a few friends that have moved from home over here, so that’s nice.”

Young guns abound in men’s qualifying draw
Sydney is a tournament that Watson has never contested until this year, but although she’s only been in town for a couple of days, it’s an environment that’s already agreeing with her.

She’ll aim to carry that winning feeling into her next match against Mattek-Sands, who at world No.48 and a former top 30 player, represents a step-up in competition.

Regardless of the result, Watson plans to use the experience to her advantage as she attempts to work her way back up the professional tennis ladder. “I’ll just take it one match at a time,” she said.

The men’s qualifying draw will an exciting mix of emerging stars and veterans competing for entry at one of the oldest tournaments in the world, the Apia International Sydney.

With free entry, Sydney sunshine and a field scattered with noteworthy players, the qualifying draw is shaping up to be a great event.

Headed by top seed Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan, the draw also features exciting young American Ryan Harrison, hoping to kick start his respective season on a strong note when he takes on third seed Benjamin Becker.

Harrison, who many American pundits dubbed the ‘next big thing’, had a difficult 2013, dropping 31 spots to 100 in the world. Looking for a brighter 2014, Harrison’s New Year’s resolution is to “eat very healthy and give up losing”, something he can hopefully start to do this week.

Another young gun hoping to make waves in 2014 is Czech Republic’s Jiri Vesely.

The youngest player inside the top 100 and winner of the ATP’s Star of Tomorrow award, 20-year-old Vesely is seeking to continue his nation’s proud tradition at the top of tennis.

The Czech enjoys the conditions down under – having won the Australian Open junior title in 2011 – and will be looking to win his first ATP main draw match in Sydney. If his serve starts to fire, the 6-foot-6 Czech could wreak havoc for his opponents and will certainly be one to keep an eye on.

Plenty of Australians are also dotted throughout the draw to ensure plenty of local interest.

A six-strong Aussie contingent will take to the courts at Sydney Olympic Park Tennis Centre, featuring Matt Reid and John-Patrick Smith – who face off in a frst-round stoush – and wildcards Jordan Thompson, Matthew Barton, Dane Propoggia and Jacob Grills.

Thompson arrives in Sydney with confidence sky-high after winning the Australian Open Play-off, ensuring his place in the main draw at the year’s first Grand Slam event.

The Apia International Sydney men’s qualifying event kicks off at 10am tomorrow.

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