Before the start of Wimbledon, in an interview with one of the British newspapers, Johanna Konta had said, “I'm neither Tim Henman nor Andy Murray. I play to do the best I can, so what I will achieve will be what I will achieve.”
It was one way to defuse the undeniable and inevitable pressure Brits feel at the home Grand Slam. But here she is now, the beacon of British hope yet again. The only British player, male or female, still alive in singles at the Championships.
And the Australia-born Konta gave a lesson on survival during her 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over Sloane Stephens in the third round at Wimbledon. The British No 1 fought off the early brilliance of Stephens and four break points in a momentum-swinging second set to maintain her winning record over the 2017 champion.
“I just kept plugging away, more than anything,” Konta, the world No 18, said after defeating the ninth seed. “She was playing incredibly well and I was fully prepared to not be coming back in that second set. I was really pleased I could keep battling, I was pleased I could mix things up and I did a good job in getting her out of that zone.”
The result wasn’t surprising when you consider that the 28-year-old has dominated Stephens this year. They hadn’t played against each other before this year, but Konta had a 3-0 record over Stephens coming into the third round clash at Wimbledon. The most decisive of those matches was the French Open quarter-final, where Konta secured a surprisingly easy 6-1, 6-4 victory. It is interesting to note that while Stephens had made the final in 2018, Konta had never won a match at French Open before this year. The legendary Chris Evert was left “speechless” by Konta’s utter domination.
Still smarting by that loss and determined to set the record straight, Stephens put on a near perfect show in the opening set. She absorbed all the pace and pressure — of being at the wrong end of the adoring Konta fans on Court No 1 — and kept mistakes to a minimum (five). The American’s forehand was doing all the damage, beating the Brit into submission. Stephens earned the only break of the set in the seventh game and went on to win it 6-3.
The American almost carried that momentum into the second set. It was only some tough hanging from Konta that kept her in the contest. The Brit saved one break point in the third game and two more in the fifth to keep a toe in the door. While that resilience gave Konta some confidence, it chipped off Stephens’ belief. In learning to survive, Konta had also worked out that she needed to disturb Stephens’ rhythm, to not let her control play from the baseline. Konta started to come to the net more often — and won 10 of 12 net points. In the decisive 10th game of the set, she gave Stephens a dose of her own medicine, hitting some blistering forehands to set up the break.
Konta won her first point of the game with a forehand crosscourt hook that slid off the grass at a wicked angle and capped it off with a slapping forehand winner to bag the second set 6-4. A semi-finalist at Wimbledon in 2017, the British player seemed to have wrested control of the match. Possibly with the demons of past defeats against Konta haunting her, Stephens crumbled quickly after that.
The American lost her serve twice in the deciding set and made nine errors (against five winners) to surrender meekly. Konta won a total of 28 points in the third set — compared to just 13 for Stephens — and 57 percent of the receiving points. What had started as a struggle for the Brit, ended with a romp into the fourth round.
“I'm really pleased that I've been able to make it to the second week in two successive Grand Slams. I've never been able to do that before,” said Konta, who had a breakthrough clay season this year, making it to the final of Rome and semi-finals at Roland Garros.
“I don’t think anyone can go on the court against me feeling sure it’s a done deal. The more opportunities I get to be in the latter stages of Grand Slams, the more experience I gain. Experience can only bring good things. It can only help with managing different things, different situations that come up at this point of the tournament.”
Konta will have to draw on every bit of that resilience and experience, and fan support, as she takes on the two-time champion and the popular Petra Kvitova in the next round.
Updated Date: Jul 07, 2019 13:41:40 IST