Slow blokes and seagull poo kept Johanna Konta waiting until the wee small hours as she tried in vain to keep her Australian hopes alive.
Konta eventually lost 6-4, 6-7, 7-5 to Garbine Muguruza, the former Wimbledon and French Open champion and once world No 1 – but that was only half of the story.
She did not get on court until 12:30am, the latest-ever start for a match at Melbourne Park. Her match had been delayed for several hours by two inordinately long men’s matches earlier in the day – Kei Nishikori and Alexander Zverev both needed five sets and the best part of four hours to reach the third round – and by a group of incontinent birds.
“It’s not ideal for anyone [to start a match at that time],” Konta said. “I don’t think it’s ideal for anyone to do any physical activity when it’s bedtime but it is what it is and both of us were in the same boat so both of us had to deal with the same challenge.”
As Zverev huffed and puffed against Jeremy Chardy, the decision was made to move Konta’s match from the Margaret Court Arena to the empty Court No 3. But when the officials got to the new venue, they found a flock of gulls had settled in for the evening – and they had made their mark on the playing surface.
“Once Zverev and Chardy went to the fifth set, we were actually going to go out to Court Three and start,” Konta explained, “but there was basically seagull poo everywhere so they had to clean the court. And by the time they had cleaned the court, it would have taken about ten or 15 minutes and we were in the same boat anyway.
“Ideally, I think both of us would have wanted to play earlier. This is no one’s ideal schedule to play in the wee hours of the morning but we don’t make the schedule unfortunately and we both dealt with the same challenge.”
Both women were asked whether they would prefer to wait for the mess to be cleared or whether they would rather hang on for Zverev to finish on their original court. At this point, Zverev was 4-0 up in the fifth set and cruising. So they waited. And then Zverev slowed down and the clock ticked on past midnight and towards that 12:30am mark.
The crowd, such as it was, was probably around 1,000 strong as they began but after a handful of games it had thinned out to a couple of hundred at best.
After all that hanging around, it was always going to be difficult to hit the ground running but as Konta eased into life, Muguruza was on her toes from the very first ball and in a flurry of thumping groundstrokes, she was a break to the good after the first game.
As the Spaniard leathered the ball and hit the lines, Konta took ten minutes to get on the scoreboard and, in the first two games, she won only one point. It was not that Konta was playing poorly, it was just that Muguruza, pictured, had started at full pelt and the former Melbourne semi-finalist could not catch her. That cost her the opening set.
Starting again in the second set – and now up to full speed like her rival – Konta gave as good as she got. Both women were crunching their groundstrokes, serving well and attacking at every opportunity. Playing like for like, a tiebreak was inevitable but that was when they were held up yet again: it started to rain at a point each in the decider. It only took a few minutes to close the roof and mop the court but it was yet another distraction for Konta to deal with.
But Britain’s No 1 was not to be derailed – she had not played this well in many a long month – and cracking down an ace to set up set point, she took the tiebreak for the loss of only three points.
By this stage, the crowd had been whittled down to only the hardiest of souls. The tennis was as good as it was relentless – neither woman ws giving an inch – but the shame of it was that there were so few people left to see it.
On it went beyond 3am and still neither of them was willing to blink until at 3:12am and after two hours and 42 minutes of battle, Muguruza pounced. A couple of thumping returns by the Spaniard were Konta’s undoing and, as she tried to get a racket string on the second one, her flapped forehand headed for the net and Muguruza headed for the third round.