Heather Watson on Getting Young Women Into Tennis, Wimbledon and British Prospects

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Euro 2024, the UK election, the British Grand Prix, the upcoming Paris Olympics – it’s easy to feel like living on this isle is a busy job at the moment. And now, here comes Wimbledon into the mix.

Starting today (July 1) The Championships (better known as just “Wimbledon”) will take over at least a part of our collective consciousness for two weeks. And while it’d be easy to suggest the sporting event could get lost in the busy viewing schedules of Brits this year, we all know it won’t be. No matter where we’re at, Wimbledon is always the fresh strawberry on the cream cake of British summer – especially if a homegrown player like Andy Murray or Emma Radacanu excels.

When we spoke to British female star, Heather Watson, three days before the tournament started, she echoed that feeling. “Everyone just gets in the spirit and people from all over the world fly over just to come to the event,” she said. “It is a historical, unique, very special event – and it’ll be forever I think.”

This year, Watson is appearing at the tournament on a wildcard and speaking on the Friday before her match against Germany’s Greet Minnen, she told PS UK: “I’m so excited. I feel so fortunate to be involved in another Wimbledon. It’s just magical there. I don’t take that many pictures on my phone anymore, but when I get to Wimbledon, I just wanna take a picture of everything. Just to be part of it, as I get older, I just appreciate so much how special it is to be involved in an event like that.”

Watson was talking from Roehampton, where she was taking part in Come Play presented by Morgan Stanley alongside Johanna Konta and Judy Murray. The WTA Foundation initiative, which started in 2018, utilizes tennis to positively impact communities and encourages youth, with a focus on girls, of all ages and abilities to lead healthy and productive lives on and off the court. The community event aims to benefit local youths from all backgrounds (including from the Elena Baltacha Foundation) and to encourage more girls into tennis, no matter their means or resources. “I think actually for a lot, or for most this will be [their first experience of tennis]” she said. “I would guess not a lot of them have had access to tennis courts and tennis rackets – so this is a great, great event.”

The perceived barriers are two-fold for the group gathered with Watson on Friday – women are less likely to engage with tennis, but so are those from lower-income backgrounds.

“Girls in general, when you are young, around that age of 10, 11, 12, you become a bit more self-conscious, self-aware, and sport can sometimes be seen as… you know, you don’t wanna be all hot and sweaty. But hopefully with days like today we’re encouraging girls to be more active and see it as a positive thing and a really cool thing, especially when you’ve got amazingly successful strong women here at this event.”

When it comes to background and finances, tennis might not seem to be as elitist as some sports, but the huge cost of becoming professional does still put some people off – Watson hopes they can change that perception around though. “It is an expensive sport to get involved in, especially if you want to go the professional route,” she acknowledges. “It’s so difficult to do for families without the support of federations or sponsors.

Image Source: Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)

“But I don’t think it needs to be, we [don’t] need to think that far ahead. It would just be nicer for people to get involved in tennis just as a hobby or as an activity. I know that park courts are really important for things like that – and you can rent park courts now for about £5, which is great. So it’s about making that more accessible – and then obviously making the equipment more accessible as well.”

If projects like Come Play can get into the consciousnesses of the younger generations, there can be real advantages. “It’s great to be involved in getting young girls involved in sport just for like, a healthy lifestyle. Yeah. But also to make friends, to socialize. I know when I was younger and I played tennis, that was my favorite part – going, hanging out with my friends. You build relationships, social skills, a healthy lifestyle. The benefits are endless.”

Asked about the state of the current British Women’s tennis game, Watson was positive: “There are so many great players at the moment. Last week in Eastbourne we had three girls in the quarter finals. There are so many great players, which is brilliant, especially on the women’s side to encourage the young girls to get involved. Because I know when I was younger, you have those role models in the sport. So that’s really important for driving the future forward.”

And if you’re a woman reading this and thinking of giving it ago, Watson wants to stress that tennis (especially in the British summer time) is fun too. It’s one of those “exercise without knowing you’re exercising” sports that will get your heart rate up in the name of play. “It’s one of those like subconscious workouts,” says Watson. “You’re not even gonna think you’re being active because you’re gonna be thinking about just trying to get that ball over the net and, and bantering with your friends.”

Chuck a Pimms in, and we’re there.

Rhiannon Evans is the interim content director at PS UK. Rhiannon has been a journalist for 17 years, starting at local newspapers before moving to work for Heat magazine and Grazia. As a senior editor at Grazia, she helped launch parenting brand The Juggle, worked across brand partnerships, and launched the “Grazia Life Advice” podcast. An NCE-qualified journalist (yes, with a 120-words-per-minute shorthand), she has written for The Guardian, Vice and Refinery29.

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