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 Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By Si­mon Briggs TEN­NIS CORRESPOND­ENT

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

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