Another opportunity to reach a grand slam semi-final missed; another hatful of unforced errors from Johanna Konta. Yet this time Konta can walk away from the biggest show court in tennis with her head held high.
Unlike in her loss to Barbora Strycova at Wimbledon, Konta fought tooth and nail until the bitter end against Elina Svitolina in the Arthur Ashe Stadium but the world No 5 from the Ukraine was just too good and too solid for it to make any difference. Svitolina won 6-4, 6-4 in one hour and 40 minutes.
To begin with those unforced errors. At Wimbledon, Konta got into a slanging match with a reporter after racking up 34 errors in her quarter-final defeat; this time around, there was little cause to berate her for the 35 mistakes against Svitolina. Of course it would have been better had she kept the number to a more respectable level but whenever she fluffed her shot, the intent was plain to see; she had an obvious plan. It was just her execution that let her down.
With Svitolina not giving an inch from start to finish, Konta had to play lights-out to try and make a dent in the No 5’s defences. When she managed it, some of the winners – and there were 24 in all – were spectacular. But if she missed them by a fraction, the error count rose again.
At Wimbledon, her game plan unravelled under the pressure of her opponent’s tactics and the importance of the moment. Yesterday, Konta was just trying everything she knew to keep her rival within reach – and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t.
Konta’s biggest problem was Svitolina’s uncanny knack of getting almost every ball back. Forcing Britain’s No 1 to play another ball and another ball, she forced Konta into mistakes and then, when frustration crept into the Briton’s game, she lapped up the gravy of a few free points. But that is why Svitolina is the world No 5 and the highest ranked woman left in the draw.
Konta has made much of her new freedom on court, of her willingness to think for herself rather than follow a pre-set plan laid down by her coach. Dimitry Zavialoff, her current mentor, encourages her to identify problems on court and then solve them without help. So, against Svitolina, she tried a range of tactics: she varied the pace, she used the backhand slice, she mixed up her serve, she used the drop shot and, going back to her favourite ploy, she also leathered winners from the baseline. And still Svitolina would not lie down.
The Ukrainian’s defensive powers allowed her to mop up Konta’s aggression and then pick her moment to attack. She broke first in the first set; Konta broke straight back. She broke again and this time there was no response from Konta. The second set followed much the same pattern but even with her back to the wall, Konta did not stop fighting, saving two match points before Svitolina finally got her own way.
“I have played her four times, I think, and I haven’t beat her yet,” Konta said. “I do feel that was probably the best I felt her play against me. She played so well, to be honest. Actually, I didn’t play badly at all. I actually felt like I was doing a lot of good things out there, a lot of the right things.
“It’s frustrating. I would have loved to have come through that and come through a challenge like her, but I guess it will just have to be next time.”
This has been the most consistent grand slam season of Konta’s career. In the last three major championships, she has reached the quarter-finals (and at the French Open, she went one better to reach the last four). On the back of that run, she could also be back in the world’s top ten by the time the US Open is over.
“There is a lot to be proud of there,” Konta said. “I think as a season as a whole so far – it’s not finished – I think I’m just pleased with how I feel I’m just getting better throughout the season. I still feel like I’m evolving and developing and just improving, which is nice to feel, being 28, as well.”
Konta has re-established herself as a consistent threat at the big events. When the tour moves on to the Australian Open at the start of next year, Konta’s loss to Svitolina will be long forgotten.