On a day where Wimbledon harked back to a bygone era, with a parade of legends to celebrate Centre Court’s 100th birthday and Cliff Richard singing Summer Holiday, Heather Watson also did her bit by resuscitating the role of plucky Brit.
For all her occasional magic, the sheer number of gentle sighs – usually after a forehand failed to find its mark – told the story.
It felt like a missed opportunity for the hugely likable Watson, who was in the last 16 of a grand slam for the first time at the age of 30. But after her 6-2, 6-4 defeat she admitted the thumping power and unerring precision of Jule Niemeier had been just too good.
“I felt like I was playing a serve-bot type thing,” Watson said. “The points were just so quick. I was just trying to make as many returns as possible, holding on to my serve. It felt like more men’s tennis today than women’s.”
In her first three matches at Wimbledon, Watson had faced players ranked 110th, 140th and 62nd in the world. But while the 97th-ranked Niemeier also looked beatable on paper, the 22-year-old’s game proved a perfect mesh for these fast grass courts.
It also did not help that Watson’s body was a little beaten up and bruised by playing seven successive days in singles and doubles. “I’ve had so many falls,” she said, pointing to her legs. “I’ve got bruises everywhere.
“And one of the slips I had against Kaja Juvan, one of the muscles at the back of my knee had a reaction. I felt that quite a lot yesterday. It wasn’t too long, so I managed to get away with it. But my knees are pretty unstable right now.”
Watson started with an ace and looked to be playing solidly at 2-1 up. But soon the German’s power game took over as she rattled off five quick games to take the set. The British No 4 appeared briefly back in control as she broke at the start of the second set to lead 2-0, but that proved illusory as a weak service game allowed Niemeier to break back.
A key moment came with Watson 3-2 ahead and 30-0 up on Niemeier’s serve, having hit two incredible drop shots to put the pressure on. But just when Watson needed to strike, she instead sent a forehand long and then another wide of the tramlines as Niemeier held on.
At times Watson’s tennis brought to mind that famous quote from Forrest Gump about life being like a box of chocolates; “you never know what you’re gonna get”.
Niemeier soon broke again to lead 5-3 and while Watson fought on and saved two match points, it wasn’t enough. “Credit to my opponent,” she said. “I felt like she played really well, especially in that first set. Very flawless tennis. I actually was thinking at the end of the first set, trying to think of unforced errors she’d hit, and I could only think of two. She served very big, which I think was a difference today. I felt like I was always reacting to her ball. Not on the front foot like I had been in my other matches.”
Niemeier’s quarter-final opponent will be another German, Tatjana Maria, whose extraordinary run continued as she saved two match points before shocking the 12th seed Jelena Ostapenko 5-7, 7-5, 7-5. It was some match, with the 34-year-old mother of two trailing 4-1 in the second set and 2-0 in the third before pulling off a remarkable comeback.
Maria had never reached the second week of a major before this week – but has scored her career-best result at this level less than a year after returning from the birth of her second child, Cecilia.
“Some people like to do bungee jumping,” she said. “I like to come back to tennis after having kids, I guess. There’s always the belief that I can do it. That’s why I came back after the first one. It’s why I came back after the second one. If not, if I don’t believe I can do these things, then I would not be here. Doesn’t matter how old you are, doesn’t matter how many kids you have, you just have to keep going and to believe in yourself.”
Afterwards Maria also revealed she had prepared for her match by practising with her eldest daughter, Charlotte, who was born in December 2013. “To be in the quarter-finals is something amazing, but I will stay the same person,” she said.
“So nothing changed for my family or nothing changed for our daily programme. We are still at 8.30am in the indoor courts and she’s practising. I’m still over there, doing the same things that I always do. It will not change my personality.”