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Johanna Konta hails home crowd after tricky first hurdle

 

By Paul Newman

The last 12 months have not always been easy for Johanna Konta, but spending time at home has clearly helped to lift her spirits.

While the British No 1 has a long way to go before she can think of emulating her run to last year's Wimbledon semi-finals, she got her latest All England Club campaign off to a good start here yesterday by beating Russia's Natalia Vikhlyantseva 7-5, 7-6.

Victory was no less than Konta should have expected against the world No 103, but as Sloane Stephens and Elina Svitolina, the No 4 and No 5 seeds respectively, had discovered 24 hours earlier, the early rounds on Wimbledon's lush grass can be a dangerous place.

Konta struck the ball well from the start, served consistently and held firm despite a late wobble. When her chances came, the 27-year-old Briton generally took them in emphatic fashion.

In the second round she will face Slovakia's Dominika Cibulkova, who beat Alize Cornet 7-6, 6-1. Cibulkova, the world No 33, missed out on a seeding here when the All England Club promoted Serena Williams above her world ranking.

"First rounds are always tricky," Konta said. "Both players were trying to find their footing and to find the level that they want to play. The conditions were quite tricky. It was very breezy and dusty and that definitely didn't make it easy on us.

"In the first round of a Slam - and for me at Wimbledon - there are definitely some nerves there, but I enjoyed every second of it. For however long I was going to be out there I made sure that every second I was out there I would fight hard for every point."

She added: "I think I stayed very tough out there. It wasn't easy. There were points and parts of the match where I didn't make the right decisions."

Konta reached No 4 in the world rankings in the wake of her performances here last summer, which were the best by a British woman for 39 years, but had slipped to No 9 by the end of 2017 and has fallen even further since. After making early exits at the Australian and French Opens and failing to defend her Miami Open title, she arrived here as the world No 24.

The last month, nevertheless, has seen Konta find her best form of the year. She reached her first final for 12 months in Nottingham and took Caroline Wozniacki, the eventual champion, to three sets in Eastbourne last week.

While Konta insists that she is never too concerned about the prospect of defending ranking points, this could be a significant fortnight in her career. Had she lost in the first round she would probably have dropped out of the world's top 40 at the end of the tournament.

Vikhlyantseva won one match on her Grand Slam debut in Australia last year but has lost in the opening round of every subsequent Grand Slam event. However, the 21-year-old proved her ability on grass when she reached her only tour-level final at 's-Hertogenbosch last summer.

The 6ft 1in Russian has a potent serve, though she paid a high price here for nine double faults. She also packs a powerful punch with her ground strokes, but her less than fluid movement leaves her vulnerable when on the run.

At the start of a glorious day on Court Two, Konta had the first chance to break serve at 3-3 after two double faults by Vikhlyantseva, but the Russian responded in emphatic fashion. On break point she hit a thumping forehand winner down the line and went on to hold serve with a wrong-footing forehand which left Konta on her hands and knees.

Four games later Vikhlyantseva again got into trouble with a pair of double faults and this time she was unable to rescue the situation. At 0-40 Konta went on the attack and forced her opponent into a backhand error.

By the time Konta went 40-0 up at 6-5 the Briton had won 11 points in a row. Vikhlyantseva stopped the rot by saving the first set point, but on the second Konta hit a service winner.

At 4-3 in the second set the Briton had two chances for a second break, but Vikhlyantseva saved both of them with big forehand winners.

Konta got into more trouble, mostly of her own making. Subtlety is not the Briton's strongest suit and she paid the penalty for two poor attempts at drop shots.

She held firm on two set points, nevertheless, forcing Vikhlyantseva into mistakes.

Konta went 6-2 up in the tie-break, only for Vikhlyantseva to save four match points. On the fourth Konta served a double fault, but recovered to hit a service winner and then convert her fifth match point.

Konta said the backing of her home crowd had been "incredible". She added: "I love being at home, I love playing at home, all the way from playing at Nottingham to Birmingham to Eastbourne to here. I love every second of it."

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