Briton falls in shock defeat by world No 77
Briton loses to Fed Cup foe Cirstea despite taking first set Service speed falls away as Romanian finishes strongly
The tricky thing about this plagueridden US Open is that no one – with the possible exception of Novak Djokovic – knows how well they are playing. Let alone how well anyone else is playing.
Johanna Konta’s three-set exit at the hands of Romania’s Sorana Cirstea last night was a case in point, because it seemed to come out of nowhere.
This was not a capitulation on Konta’s part. She smacked 40 clean winners and scrambled for every ball she could reach in going down 2-6, 7-6, 6-4. But Cirstea – the world No77 – was so good that she could have been impersonating her absent compatriot, the reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep.
At 30, Cirstea has been on the tour for an age, stacking up more than 500 professional matches. And she is the sort of player who can be a nightmare when she is on, because she takes big, swift swings at the ball and aims for the lines on almost every shot. It is just that her high-risk game does not come off very often. The last time she beat a top-20 player at a major was almost four years ago in Australia.
It is possible, though, that there might have been a useful nugget of motivation lurking in the history between these two players, who faced off in a notoriously ill-tempered Fed Cup match in Constanta in 2017.
That was the occasion when Romanian captain Ilie Nastase accused Konta and her own captain Anne Keothavong of being “----ing bitches”. And when Konta left the court to compose herself, Cirstea told reporters: “Next time in trouble I will cry – maybe I can go off the court. As Romanians we get double insulted because of our nation but it’s OK, we are tough. Tougher than English people apparently.”
Deeply buried or not, such memories could have come in handy in the sterile, fan-free surrounds of Flushing Meadows, where players are searching for a replacement for the usual inspiration provided by a crowd. Djokovic put it best when he gave a sarcastic shout of “So much energy in here!” during his victory over Kyle Edmund on Wednesday night.
Everything had been going swimmingly for Konta in the first set, as she broke Cirstea’s serve three times and kept pushing her out of court with sharply angled forehands.
At 4-4 in the second set, she held two break points that would have set her up to serve for the match and probably earn a third-round spot without stress or fuss. Yet at this moment, apparently on the verge of ejection from New York, Cirstea struck a vein of gold.
For the next half-hour or so, Sorana served like Serena. Aces and unreturnables rained down from her slight frame, her racket flowing through the motion like a wand. The deadly barrage eased up a little in the third set, but Cirstea was now seeing the ball like a watermelon, and middling every groundstroke with aplomb.
There was a ferocious battle in the seventh game of the decider, when Konta managed to fend off five break points. But every time she missed a first serve, Cirstea pounded the second one straight back past her with the nonchalance of a golfer swinging at the range.
Konta’s lack of match tightness after the lockdown break could be seen in the way her service speed fell away as the crisis developed. Against her compatriot Heather Watson in the first round, her first serve had averaged 101mph.
Against Cirstea, it dropped to 96mph, and only 92mph in the decisive third set. Whereas her opponent simply grew stronger, closing out her win with another ace.
Konta said afterwards: “I obviously started better, but she raised her level. We were battling kind of toe-to-toe really. She just was better in the end. Was I surprised by the way she served? No. Frustrated? Obviously.
“These are the best players in the world, so on any given day they can play incredible tennis. Obviously the higher you are ranked, the more consistently you are able to play that level. However, everybody’s capable to play some really amazing tennis. That’s what she did.”
In the men’s doubles, the British pair of Jamie Murray and Neil Skupski played some gritty tennis to save all seven break points they faced and oust the fourth seeds – Ivan Dodig and Filip Polasek – by a 6-3, 7-5 scoreline.
Homeward bound: Johanna Konta hits a backhand during her three-set defeat by Sorana Cirstea (below) at Flushing Meadows last night