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Heather Watson reaping benefits of Nick Bollettieri Academy move

Leaving home at 12 to go to USA for tennis took guts, but that's… Plucky Heather!

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UPDATED:

21:30 GMT, 15 October 2012

Michelle Watson, Heather's mum, used to curse the fact that the 80 or so miles that lie between Guernsey and the British mainland make it one of the most expensive stretches of water to cross in the world.

It is a major reason why, when her daughter started to show enough promise as a youngster to start taking tennis seriously, the family quickly realised they needed to start looking further afield if she was to properly progress.

With the kind of determination that marked her performance in saving four match points to win the Japan Open on Sunday — ending a 24-year wait for a British winner on the Women’s Tour — they started scouting for a base.

Always smiling: Heather Watson

Bags of potential: A smiling Heather Watson was a smash hit at junior Wimbledon

Bags of potential: The ever-smiling Heather Watson as a child (left) and a smash hit at junior Wimbledon (right)

Spain was considered, as was the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, the LTA’s gated community about which opinion in the sport is heavily divided.

In the end, taking a deep breath to absorb the large fees charged to non-scholarship students, and the travel involved, the Watson family plumped for the tried and tested Nick Bollettieri Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

It turned out to be a successful move and raises the question whether Watson would have come close to achieving her potential if she had not gone through the character-building upheavals involved.

As the man who founded the eponymous training centre pointed out, the results of both the men’s and women’s Japan Opens have been cause for a double celebration in Bradenton.

While Watson triumphed, the men’s event saw a historic win for Bollettieri old boy Kei Nishikori, who came from even further away to learn the game in Florida and is now his country’s first winner of its home championship.

Making history: Watson ended Britain's 24-year wait for a women's singles title in Japan on Sunday

Making history: Watson ended Britain's 24-year wait for a women's singles title in Japan on Sunday

Time and again in tennis you see that displacement at a relatively young age has been the precursor to a stellar career. The octogenarian super coach can highlight the likes of his star ex-pupils such as Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Maria Sharapova, but there are European examples too.

Novak Djokovic left Belgrade aged twelve to attend a tennis school in Munich while Andy Murray honed his game at the Casal-Sanchez Academy in Barcelona.

‘If you look at where the champions have come out of, from the Eighties onwards it’s clear the benefits of the academy,’ Bollettieri, a man with the enthusiasm of half his 81 years, told Sportsmail. ‘It’s not just that you have got opponents from different places that you practise with and have to beat. You see an extra determination and mental strength from those who have been away from home.’

Proud: Heather with her mum Michelle

Proud: Heather with her mum Michelle

Being far removed from your roots is not something unfamiliar in the Watson family. Michelle comes from a village in Papua New Guinea and met Heather’s father Ian, a Mancunian, when he was working in the capital Port Moresby. They moved to the Channel Islands, where Ian worked for the Guernsey Electricity Board, and got into tennis at the Kings Club.

It is a world removed from the Bradenton Academy that Heather, accompanied for long periods by her mother, moved to at the age of 12 while enrolling at the local school.

‘Heather was always a character, always smiling, and began to show ability around the age of 16,’ said Bollettieri. ‘She used to pray for her opponents to miss, but gradually she learned to go after the ball and make things happen herself.’

Up until she won the US Open juniors in 2009 Bollettieri believed she might be best served by going to an American university but that success changed his thinking.

‘She takes the ball early and has developed a good volley. It should not be under-estimated how much playing doubles has helped her (she is Britain’s top-ranked doubles player). She is not a big girl at 5ft 7in but makes up for it with her movement so there is plenty of potential.

'Remember she could not have done it without supportive parents, and your Fed Cup captain Judy Murray has also been a very positive influence.’

Of course, perspective is needed and as a grounded individual Watson will know that. She has only beaten four top-50 players since March, compared with the nine that have fallen to Laura Robson in the same period. Robson remains the more likely to win a Grand Slam down the line.

On the up: Watson has broken into the world's top 50 following her triumph in Osaka

On the up: Watson has broken into the world's top 50 following her triumph in Osaka

As for Judy Murray, she looks to have a decent Fed Cup team in the making with Jo Konta another top-100 player in the making.

Wimbledon champions Jonny Marray and Danish partner Frederik Nielsen have qualified for the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 next month. Depth may be lacking but these are heady times at the top of the British game.

Australian Open 2012: Andy Murray v Novak Djokovic

Ivan's mind game: New coach helps Murray build up mental strength

Early spring 2007 and Ivan Lendl visited the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida to assess his Czech compatriot and friend, the top 20 player Radek Stepanek.

Stepanek played two sets against a scruffy teenager called Andy Murray, who was more than holding his own while cursing and chastising himself whenever he missed a point.

‘The boy is going to be a great player,’ said Lendl to the few onlookers of the unfamiliar youngster at the finish, ‘but he has got to get his focus sorted out.’

I've got my eye on you: Andy Murray is watched by Ivan Lendl during practice

I've got my eye on you: Andy Murray is watched by Ivan Lendl during practice

Enlarge

Andy Murray v Novak Djokovic

Nearly five years on and the Murray temperament is on Lendl’s plate, the eight-time Grand Slam winner having been brought in to advise the world No 4 on how to produce his best for the precise situation he finds himself in.

We know Murray can reach the deep end of Grand Slams, we know he can win the other big tournaments on the ATP Tour and he has proved he is physically capable of beating phenomenally tough opposition.

What we have not seen, though, is the kind of career-defining performance he is going to need inside the Rod Laver Arena.

Before walking out on court, Lendl will pull Murray to one side and offer one nugget of encouragement. It is one of the things he has been doing as part of the subtle culture change he has effected around Murray since they teamed up before this event.

Who knows, it might be along the lines of one of Lendl’s public utterances this week: ‘Djokovic is ranked No 1 so people think he can win, but I think every-one is beatable. If you don’t think everyone is beatable then you shouldn’t be playing the game.’

Taking the pressure off Murray is
clearly one way in which Lendl thinks he can help. We have not seen much
of the 24-year-old Scot and his team this fortnight, another innovation
Lendl is responsible for.

Pumped up: Murray has made smooth progress to the semi-final stage

Pumped up: Murray has made smooth progress to the semi-final stage

ADVANTAGE NOVAK

Djokovic leads 6-4 on head-to-head — and has beaten Murray in their last four meetings.

On court, the Lendl influence can be seen, with Murray playing a more assertive game and the eradication of any ranting and raving at the box.

Murray got slightly agitated in the first round against American youngster Ryan Harrison and at one point towards the end versus Kei Nishikori. But he is like Bjorn Borg compared to his former self — the boy Lendl saw in Florida five years ago has grown up.

Lendl’s heart is in it to the point where he has already become defensive about his charge and he draws upon the fascinating parallels between their careers and Slam final experience up until the age of 24.

‘Look at the quality of opponents Andy has lost against in finals,’ he points out. ‘I first lost to Borg on clay in the French Open final when I was 21, it was an upset I got to the finals. Then I played Connors in New York, who’d been in five US Open finals, and here I played Mats Wilander and I didn’t know how to handle the surface (grass in those days).

Old foes: Murray and Novak Djokovic will renew their rivalry in Melbourne

Old foes: Murray and Novak Djokovic will renew their rivalry in Melbourne

‘Then I beat McEnroe from two sets down in the French final and suddenly I’m the guy who never gives up. Did I deserve that reputation or the other reputation Not completely either, but that’s the perception.’

Lendl is right that the top four right now are truly outstanding, although whether there is as much depth as is claimed is more open to debate. The result is that for the first time in modern history the top four players are in the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for a second successive time, meaning that if Murray could beat Djokovic he has only done half of a tough job.

If he wins, he becomes the first man to make three consecutive Australian finals since . . . the bloke sitting up in his box.

TV: LIVE on BBC2 from 8.30am and British Eurosport from 7.45am.

Australian Open 2012: Andy Murray into quarter-finals after Mikhail Kukushkin injury

Murray secures quarter-final clash with Nishikori after Kukushkin retires hurt

British women's No 3 Elena Baltacha was moved to remark following her Australian Open first round loss that winning tennis matches is not as easy as Andy Murray makes it look.

Certainly he could not have made this tricky business appear much more comfortable since that initial struggle in the first round against American Ryan Harrison.

Having brushed aside Edouard Roger-Vasselin and Michael Llodra he completely hammered Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin in the fourth round, taking 49 minutes to move ahead 6-1, 6-1, 1-0 before the world No 92 retired with a hip injury.

Easy does it! Murray reached the quarter-finals with little fuss after Kukushkin retired hurt

Easy does it! Murray reached the quarter-finals with little fuss after Kukushkin retired hurt

Clearly that made it something of a
non-event, but you can only beat what is in front of you and Murray hit
the ball supremely cleanly in conducting a complete rout.

Murray was given what looks like a
bonus later in the day when Japanese number one Kei Nishikori sprung
something of an upset to become his next opponent by beating world
number six Jo Wilfried Tsonga 2-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.

Not only that, but the three and a
half hours it took in the heat of the day are likely to have taken a
toll on the fast-improving 22 year-old, who now finds himself in his
first Grand Slam quarter final.

Nishikori, his country’s best ever
player and a product of the Nick Bollettieri academy in Florida, is a
surprisingly powerful baseliner ranked 26 in the world who will now go
into the top twenty, regardless of how he fares against Murray.

The surge in his ranking over the
past 12 months has been largely down to increased fitness levels, but
however well he is playing he would still rate as a decent draw in the
last eight of a Major.

The key thing on a day when the
mercury exceeded 30 degrees was to get on and off court as quickly as
possible to conserve energy and the world number four did a superb job
of that in the blasting heat of the early afternoon.

Too much to take: Kukushkin covers his face as injury pain mounts while Murray (below) looks serene while taking a drink at the arena in Melbourne

Too much to take: Kukushkin covers his face as injury pain mounts while Murray (below) looks serene while taking a drink at the arena in Melbourne

Too much to take: Kukushkin covers his face as injury pain mounts while Murray (below) looks serene while taking a drink at the arena in Melbourne

That is helpful as it will surely get
tougher now, with Murray awaiting the winner of sixth seed Jo Wilfried
Tsonga and the fast improving Japanese number one Kei Nishikori. Murray
was in and out of a cool shower by the time his two prospective
opponents had divided the first two sets.

'It was really hot out on the court
and it was great for me to have saved that energy,' said Murray
afterwards. 'I played him a couple of weeks ago in Brisbane and it was a
tough three setter and I expected another tough one today. I hadn't
seen him play before and he hit some huge shots early on that made me
work so it’s good to have got through it.'

Although there was not much to beat
on the day it was further evidence of what Murray is trying to do under
the tutelage of Lendl, namely to be more aggressive and take the ball
on.

'I'm trying to play closer to the
baseline, take some time away from the opponent. When you’re playing
further back there is less on the shot. Ivan’s been very positive and
it’s given me confidence that he wants to work with me.'

Murray's movement up the court was
most evident in him clambering all over Kukushkin’s serve, taking it
early and well inside the baseline to devastating effect, landing in 42
out of 47 returns. The result was that he did not hold serve once, and
whatever he was feeling in his hip – his movement appeared fine at first
– it was making him feel worse.

Murray in a hurry: The British No 1 made light work of his Russian counterpart

Murray in a hurry: The British No 1 made light work of his Kazakh counterpart

Murray in a hurry: The British No 1 made light work of his Russian counterpart

While a few Borat jokes were flying
around Kukushkin is actually a Russian tennis player, but has been
encouraged to represent cash-rich Kazakhstan in the Davis Cup – a
Plastic Kazakh if you like. Another unusual thing about him is that he
is coached by his wife Anastasia.

He hits the ball nice and flat but
was in trouble right from the start in what was Murray’s first
appearance on the Rod Laver Arena of the tournament. The 24 year-old
Scot broke him to love in the very first game and then kept on repeating
the dose, with Kukushkin calling out the trainer following the fifth
game.

'Unfortunately my last two games went five sets and I paid for that,' he said afterwards.

The two completed sets were almost
identical, both lasting 22 minutes and containing searing winners from
Murray. The one blot on his performance was a poor service game in each
that saw him broken before normality was resumed.

After he had broken him once more at
the start of the third Kukushkin walked up at the changeover to offer
his hand in resignation.

Murray described the match as
'boring', so much so that he went out for a further practice once his
media commitments for the day were finished. Lendl and Team Murray
amused themselves by covering the fixed camera by their seats with a
towel and a cap, making it slightly resemble a human head.

'Not much was happening out there but
I’ll take that,' said Murray. 'He was bouncing around before the match
but it was only after three games that I saw he wasn’t moving that
well.'

So an unexpectedly comfortable
afternoon for Murray. He is playing well, but then it must be said that
the three players above him the rankings (Novak Djokovic was due to take
on Lleyton Hewitt in the night session) have also looked in supremely
good nick, so no assumptions should be made.

Watching brief: Murray's other half Kim Sears takes in the action while fans show their support (below)

Watching brief: Murray's other half Kim Sears takes in the action while fans show their support (below)

Watching brief: Murray's other half Kim Sears takes in the action while fans show their support (below)