Amid the congratulatory jingle of text messages on Heather Watson's phone after her victory in Osaka, two stood out. One was from the world No1, Victoria Azarenka. The other was from Laura Robson, her friend, rival and chief motivator. Well done, it said, before suggesting – as good mates do – a music track she would enjoy.
Three weeks ago Robson reached a WTA singles final in Guangzhou. Naturally Watson had to go one better by becoming the first British woman to win a WTA title in 24 years. Almost subconsciously they have been driving each other, watching as their world rankings have been sliced in half with the passing of every calendar year. Now Watson believes their rivalry can push both players into the upper echelons of the sport.
"We spur each other on," she says. "It's already a rivalry. Just because we're competitive on the court doesn't mean we can't be friends off it. But when we see each other doing well we want to do even better.
"In the men's game the top players win week in, week out, and that's how it goes. In the women's game it's very different. Anybody on their day can come through and win. There's a lot of opportunity for the younger players. Not so long ago, Angelique Kerber and Sara Errani were well down the rankings; now they're top-10 players."
The foundations for Watson's optimism are solid: she is the second-youngest player in the top 50, and the 18-year-old Robson, ranked two places behind her in 52nd, is the youngest player in the top 100. And although Watson has always been a player with plenty of dog and grit, she is now adding sharper claws to her game.
"I'm usually the one on the defensive, trying to scramble back," she says. "But recently I've been stepping up and hitting the ball a lot harder and getting a lot more winners than I usually do. And my serve is turning into a weapon rather than a shot to start the point. I have to be more aggressive. The women's game is just so boom-boom that if you don't take your first opportunity your opponent will, so to get to the next level I have to do that.
"I've always been pretty ruthless. I'm not the type to give up or give anything away. But I know I need to play further in the court, winning the point rather than waiting for the mistake. I definitely did that last week.
"I'm not going to lie: some days on the practice court, I don't want to be there. It's tough. Everybody has those days, because it's so intense all the time. I am going to have bad days but I've just got to get through it. I've always been strong mentally in not giving up on the court but now I know when to take my chances, when to step back a bit and I am learning how to play the game better."
Watson's eyes, which betrayed little sign of what she called a "pretty hectic and emotional 48 hours" following her 3hr 11min singles final victory and the red-eye from Osaka, lit up when describing how she got her nails painted with gold crowns before the tournament. "I got them the day before my first match because I really felt that I was going to win. And my coach Mauricio [Hadad] was telling me the same thing. And it worked!"
But the steel behind Watson's smiles was evident too as she described her thought process while saving four match points. "Finals have to be won," she says. "They are never given to you. But if you give me a little bit I'll take a lot. As soon as she lost her first match point I thought, 'I'm in here: I can get it back'."
Watson displayed similar single-mindedness when she decided to join the Nick Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida aged just 12. "It was a choice I made myself," she explains. "My dad gave me the idea but I decided to do it. I love Guernsey but if I wanted to do anything in tennis I had to get away. I grew so much as a person. I was so excited I packed months before I had to go. My parents cried when they left me at the airport, but I was already through security – I loved it."
She now plans to have a three-week break before getting into heavy training for 2013. "I have always believed I could win WTA events," she says. "Now I've done it I will be very disappointed if I don't win a few more in the future." And will Robson be chasing her all the way? "Definitely," she says with a smile. "We are both great players."
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image: © marianne bevis