The last meeting between the two came at the beginning of the 2016 season in Hobart, where after 3 hours and 19 minutes, the second longest match of the year, Heather Watson prevailed by converting her seventh match point. It’s being said that it is hard to play against such a hand skilled player as Monica Niculescu, and the Brit learned, once again, how frustrating it is to play against the Romanian.
Niculescu climbed in the rankings at the beginning of this year, being the last seeded player here at the Indian Wells, and becoming the second best ranked Romanian, surpassing Irina-Camelia Begu. In Doha, Niculescu reached quarterfinals and on her way she beat Jelena Jankovic, in a thrilling three setter, before losing to Agnieszka Radwanska.
Heather Watson, ranked 53 in the world, had a worrying start of the year with some early exits before going into the Mexican swing. In Monterrey, she beat Caroline Wozniacki on her way to her third WTA title, a well-deserved title for the Brit who is trying to go up in the rankings even more.
A tight first set goes the way of Niculescu
Niculescu took an early 3-0 lead, a case scenario that usually happens when you play against a player as her. It takes time before you get to understand and see how balls are coming to you. A unique style as Niculescu's, mixed with a constantly desire of charging the net with dropshots, gives you no rhythm. And Watson was making too many errors. She knew it, and she was not happy how things were going. It felt like she was just out of the moment, not missing much, but clearly not good enough.
Niculescu lost only one point on her serve in the first three games of the set. So, Watson tried to stay close, but the Romanian managed to take a third breakpoint, and the Brit couldn't put her name on the score board. Watson, in order to stay in the first set, she constantly needed to generate pace, and Niculescu was making it difficult for her.
After getting a break back, Watson tried to force it too much, and every time, Niculescu was there, running from a side of the court to the other and putting the ball back at an uncomfortable height. At 5-1, Niculescu was serving for the set, and there was one question, what will Watson change, how is her strategy going to look like going further into the match?
“Don’t let her play, she has nothing else to lose. On her second serve go for the backhand, and then change it to the right. Do not let her play this game! You have to play a point and then go to the net, play another one and then hit a slice. We don’t need long rallies.” Niculescu’s coach knew that Watson was looking stronger and stronger as the Romanian was trying to close the set.
Watson looked different, more determined to change the fate of this set, and erase the memory of the first 4 games. Not even a “computer, tennis game at the net” as the commentator was calling it, couldn’t prevent the Brit’s comeback. Watson was the one managing to win the majority of the tight points, and from 5-1 down, she won three consecutive games to take it to 5-4. Serving twice for the set, Niculescu seemed troubled, talking to herself in between the points, but eventualy kept her nerves and took the first set 6-4 with an amazing forehand lob.
The Brit comes back in the second set
It became harder for Niculescu to hold serve; she was broken four times in a row, so the question was who can hold serve. In the second game, Watson got up to 40-0, but Niculescu was there to push her, and take it to a deuce with un dropshot out of nowhere. Going back and forth from deuce to advantage, neither player seemed able to close it out. Watson came to the net after serving and Niculescu passes her easily. One hour since the beginning of the match and we were still in the third game of the second set.
“You start playing randomly, go five on the left and one on the right. You are not coming to the net; you have no tactic! Hit on her right side, be aggressive, hit the ball, don’t try to just lob, and come to the net because the games are passing away from you”. This is what Niculescu’s coach had to say after the Brit got a break and a 3-2 lead.
We saw a more controlled aggressiveness from the Brit, that same forehand which got her three games in the row, despite the fact that Niculescu put up a great fight. Watson served for the set at 5-2, and she didn’t give Niculescu any chance to come back.
Niculescu earns decisive break in third set
The third set, the shortest of the match, came with a change of the momentum once again. Niculescu got the decisive break in the fifth game, and from there on she kept her nerve and won five consecutive games to close the match with a 6-2 third set.
In the third round, Niculescu will take on a rematch of her Doha quarterfinal against Agnieszka Radwanska, where the latter defeated the former 7-5, 6-1.