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Wimbledon: Heather Watson crashes out while Venus Williams advances

Meanwhile, Simona Halep will face Victoria Azarenka in the next round at SW19

Heather Watson misses her return against Belarus’s Victoria Azarenka during their women’s singles third round match on the fifth day of the 2017 Wimbledon Championships. Photo: Glyn Kirk/Getty Images
Simona Halep shakes hands with Peng Shuai after their third round clash. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

The tag of plucky loser does not appeal to any athlete with serious designs on leaving a lasting impact on their sport, even to a British player punching above her weight at Wimbledon, and it was hard for Heather Watson to focus on the positives after squandering the opportunity to become known for something more than coming within a whisker of defeating Serena Williams in the third round two years ago.

As Wimbledon’s absent champion discovered during that impertinent assault on her rule over Centre Court in 2015, Watson is a major threat when she is in the zone. The British No2 is often asked about that match and longs to shape a new narrative. But the sense that Watson will only ever be almost good enough will persist until she works out how to put away opponents of Victoria Azarenka’s class.

Watson’s coach, Morgan Phillips, had offered to shave his legs had his player reached the last 16 of a grand slam for the first time, but there were no calls for a razor after the 25-year-old lost to Azarenka on Centre Court.

There was a measure of controversy in the closing moments when Watson was denied the opportunity to challenge the serve that earned Azarenka a match point. The Belarusian, whose current ranking of 683 is as misleading as the glossy pictures on a takeaway menu, converted it to win 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 in two hours and six minutes. There was much to discuss when they met in the mixed doubles later in the day, which Watson won with partner Henri Kontinen 6-3, 6-4.

The real frustration for Watson was that Azarenka still shows signs of rust after recently returning to the tour following the birth of her son, Leo, in December. She hit eight double-faults but the 25-year-old from Guernsey could not capitalise on her opponent’s search for fluency.

Watson had momentum after taking a set off Azarenka for the first time in nine attempts. After failing even to qualify for the French Open, the wildcard has enjoyed an unexpected bounce in the past fortnight and had dominated the former world No1 after breaking early in the first set.

Azarenka broke back in the seventh game after a ragged forehand from Watson, who reacted by breaking again before showing maturity to serve out the set. Yet the two-time grand slam champion came back in the second set. She clipped the tape with a backhand to lead 5-1 and levelled the match when Watson missed a forehand.

Despondency spread when Azarenka inched ahead midway through the deciding set. Amazingly Watson forced her way back into contention, but she was broken for 5-4 with a pinpoint forehand.

Serving for the match, the Belarusian survived when Watson wasted two break points with insipid forehand returns. Then the 2012 and 2013 Australian Open winner, who will face Simona Halep next after the No2 seed beat China’s Peng Shuai, struck an unreturnable serve to earn a match point.

Watson lifted an arm, thinking it was out. The umpire, who had already given Watson a time violation, ignored her. “She did, she did,” the crowd said, claiming Watson had made a valid challenge. “Oh no she didn’t,” replied the umpire, refusing to defer to Hawk-Eye because there was no verbal challenge. The Briton departed with a slight whiff of farce after a final errant backhand, her 33rd unforced error, still to write that next chapter.

Meanwhile, Simona Halep has spent much of the past three weeks trying to forget about Jelena Ostapenko, the woman who denied her a first grand slam title at the French Open. With each win here the memories are being erased a little more, even if Ostapenko will be her semi-final opponent should they both get there. Before then, Halep has to contend with the former world No1 and new mother Victoria Azarenka, but on the evidence of her first three matches, she is looking like a contender again.

Simona Halep shakes hands with Peng Shuai after their third round clash. Photo: Adrian Dennis/Getty Images

Halep’s 6-4, 7-6 (7) win over Peng Shuai of China was not easy – she had to save a set point in the second set before taking the tie-break 9-7 – but it was more indication that her mind is in the right place as she enters week two. A semi-finalist here three years ago and a quarter-finalist 12 months back, the Romanian is much better on grass than she is given credit for and even against an improving Azarenka, her attitude looks spot-on and she may just take some stopping.

“I didn’t have doubts [that I could play well],” Halep said, referring to how she felt after Paris. “I was sad, of course. But I was realistic after the match. I saw what I’ve done less good and what I’ve done good. I think my game is at a very high level in this moment. That upset from the final cannot bring me down. I got just the positives from the clay court season. It’s been amazing. Now I’m just positive again and I started again. So I don’t have problems that I cannot compete again.”

Halep moves almost as well on grass as she does on clay, minus the sliding, and while many have struggled in the first week on courts that have largely lost their top layer because of the heat, she seems to be at home. Peng, ranked 37, is a tricky customer and made life difficult for Halep, who saved a set point at 6-5 in the tie-break thanks to a volley winner, something she was especially pleased with. “That’s very, very rare,” she said, with a smile. “But it was nice. The emotions are positive now in those moments. I played much better when I had to step in and to hit.”

Azarenka, who ended the run of Britain’s Heather Watson, clearly lost none of her power or fight in the six months she spent away following the birth of her first child and is likely to present Halep with plenty of problems. The No2 seed knows she will be in for a battle. “She was No1 in the world, grand slam champion,” Halep said. “I think she has everything to come back and to be again in the last matches of the tournaments. She’s a strong personality. It’s nothing surprising for me. I feel that she has to be here because she deserves to be. She’s working hard.”

Ostapenko, meanwhile, continues to confound those who expected her to fall flat here after her heroics at Roland Garros, where she became the first Latvian to win a grand slam title. Bashing the ball in fearless manner, she came from 5-3 down in the first set and 5-2 down in the second to record a 7-5, 7-5 win over Camila Giorgi, an Italian ranked 86 who is almost as flashy, but not as consistent as the No13 seed.

The junior champion here in 2014, Ostapenko is into the fourth round for the first time and now plays the No4 seed Elina Svitolina of Russia, who beat Carina Witthöft of Germany 6-1, 7-5.

France’s Caroline Garcia reached the last 16 for the second year in a row thanks to a 6-4, 6-3 win over the American Madison Brengle, who put out the two-time champion Petra Kvitova in round two. A quarter-finalist 12 months ago, Garcia will now play Johanna Konta.

The five-times champion Venus Williams survived a tough test from the rising Japanese player Naomi Osaka to record a 7-6 (3), 6-4 victory. She will play Croatia’s Ana Konjuh, who upset the No8 seed Dominika Cibulkova 7-6 (3), 3-6, 6-4.

(Guardian service)