Amateur psychologists who follow the career of Johanna Konta, she of the deliberate and precise bouncing of the ball before serving, reckon they know the exact moment when she’s going to have a wobble. It’s when she bounces extra-deliberately and super-precisely.
The moment for the British No 1 came in the second set against Natalia Vikhlyantseva. It threatened to square the first-round match against the Russian challenger, opening up the prospect all kinds of mental frazzlement thereafter.
But this didn’t happen. Konta composed herself, saved the set points and progressed, albeit after passing up five chances to win the match. The weekend shrinks, if they were pondering 20,000 theses on how Konta or another Brit woman can possibly bounce Virginia Wade into history and win the title, will have to put their deliberations on hold, at least for now.
Konta won 7-5, 7-5 and afterwards declared herself pleased to have come through a tough match.
It was a topsy-turvy encounter, just like the previous year for the player when everything went right until it all started to go wrong. She’s keen to move on from that and a tight match, even if it mirrored 2017, was another step along the way for what she was definitely calling “the 2018 Johanna Konta”.
Last year was schizophrenic for the 27-year-old. It peaked with her reaching the Wimbledon semi-finals then crashed. “It was incredible for me in terms of how you can have two very different experiences in one season,” she admitted. “Obviously I won a boatload of matches in the first half. In the second half, after Wimbledon, I only won two. Difficulties and triumphs … I definitely started this year looking to rebuild my match confidence, my identity, how I want to conduct myself, how I want to play out there.”
But bad was good, she said. You could learn from it. Makes you stronger and all that. “I think everything happens for a reason so I’m really happy where I am in my career. I’m really happy with the challenges that I have because I think they’ll help me, post-tennis, in how I deal with adversity, how I deal with my own struggles.”
Konta began this match struggle-free but then so did Vikhlyantseva. The first set was tight until it wasn’t. Ten games went by with only one break point on offer, not taken by Konta. But then her 21-year-old opponent served two double faults, Konta winning the game to love, and she closed out the set with the loss of only one more point.
Konta broke early in the second set. Where had Vikhlyantseva’s steady form gone? She wasn’t smiling, but then she wasn’t doing that even when her forehand was sizzling down the line.
In the seventh game, two more double faults seemed to signal the match was over but the girl from Volgograd, ranked 103 in the world, rallied. Suddenly the sprightly potential of a 5-2 lead for Konta became the dull certainty of the Brit finding herself 4-5 down and a point away from losing the set. Where had Konta’s steady form gone? Matches can change in an instant, bend with the breeze which was blowing over No 2 Court.
Vikhlyantseva had the momentum and it seemed the set would follow. But back came Konta who eventually prevailed, praising her opponent and expressing gratitude for the mild ordeal. “She has a big game, she made me work very hard,” Konta said. “It was a great match for me to have, to battle through until literally the very last point. The matches which are a lot more straightforward, you take them. But the ones which ask a lot more of you, I definitely feel I can take a lot of good things [from them].”
Spoken like a true, plucky Brit, still striving and hoping that the Venus Rosewater Dish can be ours again. Sure, she was anxious at the end, but who isn’t at such moments? “Nerves are going to be there. Nerves are there for everybody. I’m not special in that sense [but] I continued to crack on.”
Konta is still searching for the right formula. Coaches come and go in her world and she’s not alone in that either. She’s also had her run-ins with the media, criticising them for over-criticising her. She coped well with the post-match inquisition yesterday but brightened noticeably when the subject changed to baking.
In the kitchen Konta has found the right recipe. “I’m really proud of this: I made a Pavlova for the first time the other day,” she beamed. “My first meringue, strawberry, mint and elderflower. It looked unbelievable.
“I said to my boyfriend: ‘Is is it good, is it good?’ He said it was good.”