Harriet Dart’s disarmingly cool demeanour disguises a competitive core that she will need to call on in another examination of her nerve and skill when she plays the former world No 1, Simona Halep, on the Australian Open’s main court on Thursday evening.
A year ago in the same Rod Laver Arena, Maria Sharapova embarrassed the lightly built British player in the game’s most dreaded manner: a double bagel. Much has changed for both of them since and, as Dart says: “Physically I am definitely in a much better place, thanks to my trainer [Ian Aylward]. I am recovering better and am able to deal with the weight of shots, the back-to-back matches. I am happy with that.”
Lurking deceptively deep in the rankings for her level of tennis at 173, Dart has already shown her steel here, coming through qualifying without dropping a set then ignoring a first-set deficit to overcome Misaki Doi 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10-6) in a late-night war of attrition. She says losing so heavily to Sharapova – who left Melbourne after a desultory first-round loss this week – and then Ashleigh Barty on Centre Court at Wimbledon had toughened her up.
“I earned my place both times when I played them. It’s very easy for people to judge you on one match. Equally, I understand that I am in the spotlight, I am playing in the big arenas, against big players,” Dart says. “Again, I have qualified and won a round here. That gives me extra confidence. It’s an exciting opportunity to see where my level is at. [Against Doi] I kept my composure and was proud of how I was able to turn it around, even after having match points at 6-5. I have come on a lot since last year. I had a really good off-season, I feel a lot physically stronger.”
Now the pressure is ramped up, against an opponent who once was vulnerable but who has won two slams, the most recent in breathtaking style against Serena Williams at Wimbledon last summer.
“It’s another match, to see where I am. I will definitely go into that match thinking I can win.”
Dart is comfortable, too, with her new Serbian coach, Biljana Veselinovic, who has worked with the world No14, Petra Martic (who lost to the unseeded Julia Goerges on Wednesday), Alize Cornet (61) and the 2015 French Open runner-up, Lucie Safarova. “I have worked with male coaches all my life,” she says. “Billy is great to have around. She has been amazing, incredible at the top level, and her expertise and experience is definitely helping me. It’s different having a female coach, the dynamics. They understand more. I am really enjoying my time working with her.”
Heather Watson is due to play her second-round match against the world No 17, Elise Mertens, early on Thursday morning. In her postponed first-round match Watson had to conquer the swirling wind on an outside court and the steady tennis of Krystyna Pliskova. She struggled at the start, losing her serve twice, but made it tough for Pliskova in a stubborn passage of play at the end of the set, forcing her to save two break points before getting over the line. Watson took that energy into the second set and dominated most of the exchanges, breaking to level at a set apiece.
Pliskova was now fading as Watson rallied her into submission in the third. The mistakes piled up for the languid Czech, who continued to go for her shots but found the net an inconvenience. A final wayward shot from the baseline ended her agony. Watson out-served her, made fewer mistakes and hit more clean winners, including nine aces, in just under two hours to win 4-6, 6-3, 6-1. It was an impressive, solid performance to go with her run to the semi-finals in Hobart last week.
“I was a bit nervous in the first set, a bit tense,” said Watson. “After the first set I managed to loosen up, relax and start enjoying it. I thought my game improved more and more as the match went on.”