A STRING of impressive victories in the run-up to Wimbledon counted for little yesterday as Johanna Konta lost in straight sets to Maria Sharapova, who could yet emulate her 2004 victory in SW19.
In the end, the inexperienced but in-form performer fell to her experienced if potentially rusty opponent. The British No 2 had reached the quarter-finals in warm-up tournaments at Birmingham and Eastbourne and so might have been expected to make some headway at Wimbledon, on her fourth appearance at The Championships.
This was before she was paired against Sharapova, whose preparation for Wimbledon has involved doing almost nothing since she was eliminated from the French Open, amid fitness concerns, at the fourth-round stage.
Australian-born Konta might have found the hot conditions to her liking as she stepped out on Centre Court. But, while she could not continue her recent record of taking scalps, she was rightly undeterred by the 6-2, 6-2 defeat.
Konta stretched her distinguished opponent in the very first game, taking the first two points on Sharapova’s serve. Although the Russian was able to hold, it took six minutes and two deuce points. This start made Konta’s later denials that she had frozen on the big stage all the easier to believe.
Although she is only four years younger than the 28-year-old Sharapova, there is a world between them in terms of their respective careers. Only once has Konta progressed past the first round at a Grand Slam event, at the US Open in 2012. She recognised how special yesterday was and noted the surroundings. Konta became the first British player – she was granted British citizenship only three years ago, despite moving to England in 2005 – to step on Centre Court in this year’s tournament.
“It wasn’t just playing a top‑five player,” she said. “It was playing a top‑five player on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. There were obviously a lot of special moments all rolled into one scenario.”
“And it was hot,” she added.
Had she been overawed? “I had excitement and anticipation,” she said. “But, no, I didn’t go out anxious or scared or anything. I went out looking forward to the opportunity and the scenario. I enjoyed it. Just a shame I couldn’t have done a little bit better.”
She had her chances, including five break points. She was, however, able to make only one count. Sharapova overcame her own uncertainty at times – her erratic serve put her in as well as got her out of trouble – to seal a second-round date with qualifier Richel Hogenkamp in just one hour and 22 minutes. While it sounded fairly straightforward, there was the additional obstacle of knowing the support, while of course respectful of a four-times Grand Slam champion, were firmly behind the home hope.
“I think that’s absolutely normal and expected,” Sharapova said. “Obviously she has the home crowd behind her.
“But it’s really about just focusing on yourself and what you have to do and try to win as many points [as possible].”
While Sharapova is permitted to have her sights on the main prize given her title win at the age of only 17, perhaps her first aim is to rectify poor recent form at The Championships. On only one occasion since 2007, when she reached the final four years ago, has Sharapova made it past the fourth round. She maintains that she still gets the same buzz from competing at Wimbledon, even given her struggles here of late.
“Even if I hadn’t won this event, I think for any tennis player growing up, this is a dream come true to be out on Centre Court,” said Sharapova.
“No matter how much you try to focus and just be in the zone, in the moment, try to block everything away, it’s that uniqueness, and the aura around it. It’s incredible.”