Johanna Konta’s first-round win at the US Open yesterday was remarkable in more ways than one.
Not only did she survive a mid-match bout of the jitters, not only did she win her first hard-court match of the summer, but she also managed to condense her Grand Slam record for the season into 122 minutes and three sets as she beat Daria Kasatkina 6-1, 4-6, 6-2. When she was good, she was very, very good and when she wasn’t, she was dreadful. And in between times, she was taking on the umpire and flirting with a mental meltdown. But she won, which is all that matters.
For the first 24 minutes, Konta was unstoppable, clattering her groundstrokes and finding the lines with every winner. At the same time, Kasatkina was having a miserable time – nothing was going right for the Russian, who opened her account with a couple of double faults and served up 12 double faults in all. For a woman who was ranked No 10 in the world at the start of this year – she is now down to No 42 – this was not promising.
But once those first 24 minutes were over, Konta started to tremble and Kasatkina dug in for a scrap.
For Tim Henman, commentating on his first women’s match, this was all terribly puzzling.
He kept banging on about unforced errors and sounding more and more confused the longer he spoke. He did not seem to be able to get his head around the fact that Britain’s No 1, the semi-finalist at the French Open and the quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, had committed only three fluffs in a brilliant opening first set, eight in the third as she got back on track and the rest of the 36 errors in a worryingly dismal second set.
The first and third sets were perfect examples of the Konta who had powered through the rounds in Paris and SW19, while the second set was the same Konta who had then fallen apart under pressure when she got to the last four and last eight in both places. To say that it was a mixed performance was to put it mildly.
“I thought I started well in the first set, better than she did,” Konta said. “I just started playing better at the beginning but she was No 10 in the world last year and is a very good player, the kind of player who I have lost to twice before so I knew coming into the match it would be a very tough battle. I enjoyed being out there, the difficulty of it. Her game is quite difficult for me to play, so I was prepared for that difficulty more than anything.”
As for her disagreement with the umpire, she had a fair point. On two separate occasions, an incorrect line call was called differently by the chair. The first time, the point stood – and Kasatkina won it – and the second time, the point was replayed. And Konta lost it.
“It was just differing opinions,” Konta said. “But there was one game there where he made two calls and I felt it was the same situation and he called differently. And that was basically it. I just disagreed with his opinion but then you just get on with it.”
But just as she appeared to be reaching boiling point, Konta went for a bathroom break at the end of the second set and returned a calmer, more focused player. From there, she managed to save the day.
But if her performance was not up to par from the opening scene until the closing curtain, she had friends in high places to offer some advice. Purely by chance, Konta bumped into Tim Hiddleston the other day and she invited him and some of his co-stars from Betrayal (it’s on Broadway) to come and watch yesterday’s match.
“Just literally we crossed paths,” Konta explained. “I did the Good Samaritan thing and said, ‘Don’t bother him, he’s obviously busy’, and then he actually said, ‘I don’t usually do this but I’m a massive fan’, and I was like, ‘What, who? Who else is here?’ So I invited him down and he brought some of his co-stars and I had some of my friends there as well, so I had a lot of great support in the box, it was good.”
If she keeps winning, maybe Hiddleston will return the favour with a few free theatre tickets. “Will I go to his show? If I get time I’d love to,” she said.
In terms of Britons left in the women’s singles here, Konta is in a cast of only one after Londoner Harriet Dart tumbled out at the first hurdle yesterday.
The 23-year-old was making her debut in the main draw at Flushing Meadows having come through three rounds of qualifying. But Dart found Ana Bogdan of Romania – ranked seven places below her at 147 in the world – too strong and slipped to a 6-3, 6-1 defeat.
“It was a difficult match and I think she played a pretty perfect match, I couldn’t really do much,” said Dart.
“I’m obviously disappointed with the result but I’ve got to keep moving forward.
“I played three great matches in qualifying to qualify for the main draw, I deserve my place here so I’m happy about that. Hopefully in the near future I can be in the main draw by my own right.”
The crowds at Flushing Meadows were waiting with great anticipation for the blockbuster first-round tie between Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – the first match of the night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium – but there was plenty other action in the women’s singles earlier in the day.
Second-seeded Ash Barty overcame a slow start and a shaky serve to survive a first-round scare. Barty, the French Open champion, amassed 36 unforced errors and got less than half her first serves in en route to a 1-6, 6-3,-6-2 victory over 80th-ranked Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan.
The Australian lost the first set in a mere 28 minutes and did not begin to come alive until the match was tied at 3-3 in the second. She went on to win nine of the last 11 games, ending the match when Diyas sailed a forehand long.
“I was happy with the way I was able to fight through after a pretty awful start,” Barty said. “Not the ideal start. Not the perfect start. But it is what it is.”
Third-seeded Karolina Pliskova also struggled in her opener yesterday afternoon, overcoming 32 unforced errors to win her first-round match over Czech qualifier Tereza Martincova 7-6 (6), 7-6 (3). And Kristina Mladenovic of France defeated No 14 seed and 2016 US Open champion Angelique Kerber 7-5, 0-6, 6-4. Kerber’s first-round loss follows second-round exits at both the French and Wimbledon this year.
In other results, No 12 seed Anastasija Sevastova beat Eugenie Bouchard, a former Wimbledon finalist and top-ten player, 6-3, 6-3. Former Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig fell by the same score to Rebecca Peterson of Sweden, while Russian Ekaterina Alexandrova defeated 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur 6-1, 6-3.