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Monday, October 15, 2012
Move over, Murray; it's Watson's turn

If things keep going this way for Britain's tennis pros, their fellow citizens might entertain second thoughts about all this "British champions" business. Why risk a collective, kingdom-wide outbreak of cardiac arrest for no better reason than to watch a Brit lift a tennis trophy?

In Osaka, Japan, Heather Watson became the first British woman in 24 years to win a tour-level tournament. She had to recover from blowing a second-set match point (a double fault, no less), but she ended up winning in three sets over a fellow unseeded, first-time tour-level finalist, Taiwan's Chang Kai-chen, 7-5, 5-7, 7-6 (4).

She has at least one thing in common with her namesake, Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Dr. Watson. She isn't very good at picking up on the "elementary," as in, "When you have match point in, get the danged serve into play."

But that choking interlude was just part of a wild and wooly shootout -- exactly what you might have expected from a pair who had never before been past the quarterfinals in a WTA Tour event.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, Andy Murray was poised to beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets when he served at 30-0 with a 5-4 lead in the second set. Then the wheels came off -- slowly and one at a time. Murray lost that game and ultimately the second set tiebreaker, failing to finish on five second-set match points. Djokovic ended up with the win 5-7, 7-6 (11), 6-3.

By the time that one was over, you could hear teacups smashing against walls, fireplaces and framed pictures of the royal wedding from the Hebrides to the Guernsey Islands -- which happens to be home to Watson.

Watson is a spunky and vivacious, if underpowered player, and she pulled a fast one on the British press and public. They had already ordained Laura Robson the golden girl of British tennis, and with good reason. Robson was a legitimate prodigy and had long been regarded as the British player most likely to break through as a tournament winner. She nearly beat Watson to the historic punch for Britain a few weeks ago, when Robson made the final in Guangzhou, China, and fell in a comparably tense and bitter three-set battle with Su-Wei Hsieh.

It's been easy to overlook Watson and to pooh-pooh her soft-balling ways. But No. 4 Agnieszka Radwanska has done pretty well without having a blunderbuss serve or a major weapon. Watson has been showing signs of becoming a tough out. She is clever and continues working on making the most of her counterpunching game.

You couldn't have scripted a better battle for the heart of Britain either. Robson and Watson had to play Chang (Robson lost to her in the quarterfinals), and when it was all over, Watson had jumped to No. 50 -- two ticks ahead of Robson in the rankings.

Way to keep things interesting, ladies.

One of the pleasant dividends for Britain is that Watson and Robson are bound to make each other better. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang can tell you that there's nothing like a little peer-group rivalry to make everyone play better.

Murray, unfortunately, doesn't benefit from hearing footsteps behind him. He is running a solo race, and developmentally, he is light years ahead of his female British colleagues.

He lost a tough one Sunday, but Murray's win over Federer in the semifinals and the tense, close nature of his 3-hour, 21-minute struggle with Djokovic confirms Murray isn't swooning or slacking off after having captured his first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open.

Murray has been busy demonstrating that though he is still the junior member of tennis' big four, his membership in that august company is legitimate. Yet fans throughout the British Isles must be wondering, "Can't he just learn to play those match points and let us just savor and enjoy our sudden good fortune?" (Murray lost after having match points last week in Japan too).

Had Murray converted just one of those five match points in Shanghai, the British press would probably be blowing the dust off the cover of some ancient texts, still hoping to mine out when a British man and woman last won tournaments on the same weekend.

It might not hurt to keep looking, though. Besides, they say losing yourself in the pages of antique tomes is a fine antidote to stress.