Konta holds nerve to seal victory in battle of Britons
➤ Watson allows six set points to slip to miss out in tie-break ➤ British No 1 sprints clear to set up match against Cirstea
After beating her nearest competitor within the British game, Johanna Konta acknowledged that last night’s first-round match in New York had been freighted with unusually high levels of anxiety.
Yet it was Konta’s opponent, her friend and long-time rival Heather Watson, who seemed to find those tensions harder to deal with. Watson was arguably the better player for most of the first hour but she crumbled when the heat was on, allowing six set points to slip. From then on, her frustrations preyed on her mind and it was Konta who sprinted to a 7-6, 6-1 victory.
“There is more interest at home, so there will be more opinions from people at home,” Konta said. “Obviously we spend a lot of time together. There’s always going to be rivalry between compatriots.”
The narrative felt as though it echoed the wider sweep of their respective careers. Watson was the quicker out of the blocks, in the same way that she and Laura Robson had been the golden girls of British tennis around the turn of the 21st century.
But Konta stayed calm, even as it looked as if she might fall decisively behind. She kept working, kept placing her faith in her simple method: booming cross-court forehands and pinpoint serves. As time went on, the sheer weight of repetition carried her away from her opponent.
“Jo handled the circumstances well,” said Anne Keothavong, the British Fed Cup captain and former No 1, who was commentating on Amazon Prime. “It’s never easy playing a fellow Brit, particularly when it’s someone you get on well with. There was mutual respect.
“It was an impressive tie-break from Jo to come from 6-3 down. When it really mattered, unfortunately Watson was too passive. On three out of those four set points, Jo came up with a big serve and was too good. But on one of those set points, that slice backhand on ball three, that will probably give her nightmares.” Konta thus earned a secondround tie tomorrow against Sorana Cirstea, a Romanian player she crushed 6-2, 6-2 in their only meeting on the grass of Eastbourne three years ago. In the meantime, she will probably go back on the golf simulator, which she has been enjoying during her time off. “Being here is like a cruise,” she said in her post-match interview. “Like we are somewhere in the middle of the Pacific and cannot get off the boat. That’s the scenario. I don’t feel like I am in New York. “Sometimes I see the skyline of Manhattan and I am like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s there.’ At the warm-up event, I thought to myself, ‘I have no idea what day it is, what round it is, what tournament it is – it’s one of those groundhog days’.” Meanwhile, there was sad news from Carla Suaraz Navarro, the stylish Spanish baseliner who has been ranked No6 in the world. She had declined to come to New York on medical grounds and yesterday revealed that she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, which will require six months of chemotherapy.
At 31, Suarez Navarro had already announced that this would be her last season on the professional tour. “I have to face reality,” she said. “It is time to accept it and try to get ahead relying on medical advice. Always with positivity in the face of adversity. Patience and self-belief guided me through my career. Not the easiest rival to deal with. I’ll need my truly best.” Serena Williams opened her campaign with a 7-5, 6-3 win over fellow American Kristie Ahn.