The clay court tennis gods are smiling on Johanna Konta this year. She is through to the third round of the French Open for the first time in her life and her section of the draw is opening up nicely.
But those gods are not letting her off the hook entirely – Konta had to work for her win yesterday and she had to hold her nerve in a vice-like grip until the bitter end of a 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 win over Lauren Davis. It was anything but straightforward.
For a set, Konta and Davis stood toe-to-toe. For a set, Konta was simply brushed aside like a croissant crumb. And then for most of the third set, Konta was in total command. Or she was until the diminutive but dogged Davis came back at her. By the end of the two hours and ten minutes, the predominantly pro-Konta crowd were gripping the edges of their seats in white-knuckled fear – 5-0 became 5-1 and then 5-2 and 5-3. Match points came and match points went (four in all). And then finally, Konta got the job done with a last forehand.
“I’m very pleased,” she said to nobody’s great surprise. “There wasn’t so much that I did wrong. I had a good run to get to 5-0 [in the third set] but I knew with Lauren it was never over until we shook hands. More than anything, I feel I handled it well. It was a very tricky match. I feel very grateful for how much support I had.”
The win meant Konta was the first British woman since Jo Durie 27 years ago to reach the third round at Roland Garros. What she did not know was that while she was seesawing her way past the world No 111, Kiki Bertens, one of the favourites for the title and the woman she was due to meet next, was pulling out of her match with Viktoria Kuzmova after four games due to a stomach bug.
Having been ill all night, the champion of Madrid and semi-finalist in Stuttgart had no strength left to cope with Kuzmova and threw in the towel. So instead of playing the world No 4 tomorrow, Konta faces the world No 47.
“Yesterday I felt good, no problems at all,” Bertens said. “I was practising, resting, and I felt really well. Ready for today. And then this morning I woke up at 3:00, and then I was really sick all night long, all day long. I felt a little bit better before the match. I had some sleep, and I just wanted to give it a try, but then as soon as I start warming up right before the match, it started again.”
Last year’s finalist, Sloane Stephens skipped lightly into the third round with a fairly comprehensive 6-1, 7-6 win over Sara Sorribes Tormo, the world No 75 from Spain. Unusually for an American, Stephens actually likes the European clay and when everything is clicking into place for her, she has had some of her best results on the red dust.
At the start of the month, she hired Sven Groeneveld as her coach and almost immediately he began to impose some order on her game and steer her back towards the big prizes. They reached the semi-finals in Madrid in their first tournament together and clearly Stephens is relishing working with the former coach to Maria Sharapova, Ana Ivanovic and Caroline Wozniacki (to name but a few).
“Obviously bringing in Sven I have had a lot of structure the last couple of weeks, in the amount of time we’ve been working,” she said. “I feel like I’m in a good head space. I’m playing better. I’m seeing the court well, which I think is really important for me.
“My movement is good. Everything is just kind of falling into place, and that’s kind of what you want. Obviously I had a good result in Madrid, but you want it to click here. So I’m happy to be in this position and happy to be kind of getting better match by match.”
Garbine Muguruza, too, is feeling better with every match. Yesterday the 2016 champion had managed to shake off the nerves that hindered her in the first round (she dropped a set to Taylor Townsend) and absolutely walloped Johanna Larsson of Sweden 6-4, 6-1. Now, though, she has to take on Elina Svitolina, the world No 9 from Ukraine and a woman who has beaten her five times in eight meetings.
“These are the type of matches that I want to play,” Muguruza said. “It can be any deep-round match, but it’s in the third round. So it’s going to be a good one.”