Heather Watson is ready… to tackle racism, sexism, online trolls and, oh yes, even the small matter of Wimbledon. Katie Nicholl meets the British tennis star who’s aceing it on and off Centre Court.
‘Guys love latex,’ declares tennis star Heather Watson. She’s describing a lucky dress from a previous tennis season – not an on-court outfit, but a strappy, backless number that caught the eye of fellow player Lloyd Glasspool at a party. ‘I heard from his friends that he fancied me and when we met there was an instant chemistry,’ she says. ‘It was butterflies in-the tummy time.’ Heather, currently Britain’s women’s number-two player, is reflecting on the ‘passionate, intense two-year affair’ she had with Lloyd, 25, before their painful split last year. I feel as though I’m having a heart-to-heart with a friend about their love life – it’s easy to forget that 27-year-old Heather is a tennis champion, not to mention one of the most outspoken women in British sport. From racism and finding love on the circuit to motherhood and women’s bodies, nothing is off-limits for the Guernsey-born player. She is bubbling with personality, something that (whisper it) is often lacking in our sporting heroes.
Heather – who turns heads in a cropped sweatshirt, leggings and trainers she helped design with her sponsor New Balance when we meet at a café close to her Southwest London home – is also part of a new crop of players that have recently re-energised the British game including Johanna Konta, Katie Boulter and current British men’s number one Kyle Edmund.
After becoming the first British woman to win mixed doubles at Wimbledon since 1987 with partner Henri Kontinen in 2016, Heather added her name to the small but growing pantheon of British players who’ve triumphed at SW19 (Jamie Murray, Andy’s brother, won the title with Jelena Jankovic in 2007). And with the tournament kicking off tomorrow, she’s ready to take a shot at the women’s singles title. ‘Winning Wimbledon is what I live for,’ she says. ‘Walking on to Centre Court is a feeling like no other.’
But she’s brutally honest about her future in the game, especially if she wants to have children. ‘I don’t want to be playing competitive tennis when I’m a mother,’ she says. ‘If I have a child I want to give them everything and it’s really hard being a tennis player and a mother. I feel zero pressure to get married and have babies right now. I want to go out, do my thing, party and play some great tennis, but there will come a time when I’ll want to settle down. My perception of being a parent from all my friends is that you don’t get any sleep – and sleep is very important when you’re a professional tennis player.
‘There’d be the issue of who would look after the baby – I’d have to employ a nanny and that would be expensive. I’d want my child to be settled and in a routine, not travelling around the world from such a young age. I have so much respect for the female professional tennis players who do the job while being mothers – my doubles partner Tatjana Maria has a kid, and so does Serena Williams. They are incredible. If I could write the perfect script, it would be to win a Grand Slam, meet the love of my life, get married, have kids when I’m 32 or 33 and retire.’
She’s in no rush, though, to meet someone new or start juggling her frenetic tennis schedule with another relationship. Different time zones, packed diaries and ‘lots of FaceTiming’ took their toll on her relationship with Lloyd. ‘We blew hot and cold, we ended up arguing a lot and I guess we both put our careers first. We didn’t talk for a while, I had to get him out of my system.’
They bumped into each other recently for the first time since the break-up. ‘We got on like a house on fire, which was annoying,’ she laughs. ‘But we’re over and we’ve both got to move on.’ So would she date a tennis player again? ‘Hell, no!’ she says. ‘It’s just too tough. I would never mix business with pleasure again.’
Heather does admit to having been on a date with someone she met online (there was no spark), and she was asked out by a ‘seriously hot Irish guy’ whom she met in a shared taxi on her way home from a night out. ‘I’m at a stage where I’m only interested if there’s chemistry, otherwise I can’t be bothered,’ she says. ‘I’m a romantic – I want the real deal.’
Her pragmatic attitude to love has been hard-won. She recalls her first serious relationship, with former junior tennis player turned investment banker Phil Stephens, which ended in heartbreak in 2015. ‘Breaking up was so hard that I didn’t think I would survive,’ she admits. ‘Something so painful happened that I had to end it and it took me nearly a year to get over him. I don’t really want to go into it.’ But she admits that one good thing to come out of it was that her game improved. ‘I was in an angry phase and I played some of the best tennis of my career. That’s when I played Serena Williams [in a third-round thriller at Wimbledon in 2015; which Serena won], which was an epic game.’
Along with tennis, family is at the core of Heather’s life. Her father, Manchester-born Ian, was divorced with three children (Heather’s half-siblings Adam, Stephanie and Julie) when he met her Papua New Guinean mother Michelle in 1988 while they were both working for the same company in Port Moresby, the South Pacific country’s capital. The pair ended up moving to the Channel Island of Guernsey in 1991. Ian became managing director of Guernsey Electricity until his retirement nine years ago.
They never pushed their sporty, talented daughter, who started playing tennis at the age of seven, but encouraged her, driving her up and down the country in their Nissan Sunny, staying in B&Bs and hostels so she could compete. ‘I swam, I danced and I played tennis,’ Heather says, ‘but one day my dad sat me down and said, “Out of all of this, what do you want to do?” I said tennis.’
It was Ian and Michelle who suggested to their then 12-year-old daughter that she go to the IMG tennis academy in Florida, whose alumni include Maria Sharapova and Andre Agassi. ‘We’re a close family,’ Heather says, ‘and I remember seeing Dad cry for the first time at the airport and I said, “Dad, don’t be sad, this is the most exciting thing ever and I’m so happy.”’
The Watsons poured their life savings into Heather’s career, and watched as she won the junior US Open, gold at the 2008 Commonwealth Youth Games, and went on to clinch her first WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) singles title at the Japan Open in 2012.
Today Heather shares her parents’ values of thrift, independence and common sense. When she shops, it’s online, ‘and I always wait for the sales’, she says. ‘I’m frugal like that. I even shop for my groceries in the clearance section. Dad came from nothing and he told me to look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.’ She currently drives a Bentley – on loan from the car company – which she describes as a ‘boy magnet. I pulled up at lights recently and the boys in the car next to me had to pick their jaws off the ground. But I’d never buy a new car; Dad told me it’s a depreciating asset.’
Heather’s straight talking earned her the gratitude of sportswomen around the world when she admitted her poor first-round performance in the 2015 Australian Open was due to her period. There was an outpouring of thanks that, finally, a top-level athlete had spoken out about women contending with something that their male counterparts don’t have to: the menstrual cycle. It also netted her a new sponsorship deal with Always Ultra. ‘Periods can be a problem for female tennis players,’ she explains. ‘I often lose if I’m on my period. I suffer when I have it. I always have one bad day when I’m tired, I have no energy and all I want is sugar.’ Playing at Wimbledon, with its all-white dress code, just adds to that pressure. ‘It’s not ideal for women. You’re in these short skirts and tiny shorts. It’s the worst thing – and so distracting.’
It’s a cause that unites her with the Duchess of Sussex, who has highlighted the need for adequate sanitary protection for young women in India. ‘I really admire her for the work she has done to try to break down that stigma,’ says Heather. ‘Also she’s mixed race, was an actress, she’s married into the royal family and produced the first biracial royal baby. She’s awesome.’
Disturbingly, like Meghan, who is regularly attacked by racist trolls online, Heather has also been the target of vicious racist slurs on social media. ‘I’ve been called a monkey and told to go back to the zoo. That hurt. It’s just so disappointing and sad. It’s usually when I lose a match and mostly from men who have gambled on me to win. They pick on my race.
‘I have had to deal with a handful of death threats. The WTA takes them very seriously and works with the police to investigate and catch these people. Someone was arrested a couple of days ago who had been sending hateful messages to players, but the problem is we get inundated with so many negative comments it’s impossible to deal with them all. It’s been easiest to just block anyone who is offensive, but I’d like to see them say it to my face.’
For now, she’s putting anything negative to the back of her mind to focus on Wimbledon. She recently bumped into her old Rio Olympics doubles partner Andy Murray who is tentatively competing again after hip surgery in January. ‘I admire and adore him,’ she says. ‘He’s a great guy, really kind and so supportive of women in the game. He’s always sticking up for us girls.’
Currently teetotal, Heather is also mixing daily reformer pilates workouts and intense sessions at fitness studio Barry’s Bootcamp into her training. She loves to eat, but says, ‘As I’ve got older the pounds creep on more these days. When I’m training I don’t eat carbs after 6pm, but when I’m playing I need them. I’m trying to be more healthy but I can’t say no to fish and chips and the occasional KFC.’
Meanwhile, plans are already afoot for life after tennis. As well as her London flat, she has a four-bedroom home in Guernsey and wants to do up properties one day. But for now, she’s living in the moment, saying: ‘I’m enjoying my freedom and focusing on my career.’
Wimbledon starts tomorrow at 11am