Konta's new year hopes get an early shot in arm
New year, new coach, new beginning. Johanna Konta put her disappointing finish to last year firmly behind her yesterday as a 4-6, 6-4, 6-3 victory over Madison Keys in the first round of the Brisbane International gave the 26-year-old Briton a perfect start to her 2018 campaign.
With her new coach, Michael Joyce, watching approvingly from the stands, Konta defied the sweltering conditions to record her first competitive victory for four and a half months in a high-quality encounter full of good shot-making.
It was an ideal start to the new year for Konta after her 2017 season had ended in such disappointing fashion. The world No 9 did not win a match after mid-August, finished her season early because of a foot problem and then parted company with her coach, Wim Fissette, before recruiting Joyce.
The American, who made his name working with Maria Sharapova, could hardly have wished for a better start. Keys, the world No 19, who was runner-up at last year's US Open, represented a major challenge in Konta's first match of the new season, but the Briton came through it in emphatic fashion after a hard-hitting contest that lasted two hours and seven minutes.
"I think both of us going into it knew it was a tough match to have in the first round of any tournament," Konta said afterwards. "I knew going into it that I was going to be facing a tough opponent. I was actually excited to play again. Obviously, I haven't played for a little while.
"To get the chance to play such a high-quality match so early on is only a good thing to me, so I'm very happy with that. And to be able to come through in a three-set match and to get that much court time, it's a good thing."
Keys was happy with her own performance and said the match had featured some "damn good tennis".
The American added: "I think if I played the way that I played against most people today, I probably would have won. She happened to be better. She was too good.
"She didn't miss for a set and a half, so that didn't help. She was also returning well and put a lot of pressure on me. She was serving really well. She just played really, really solid and didn't really give me much."
The temperature was 33C when the match started just after 3pm on a typically hot and steamy Brisbane afternoon. Given the high humidity and the lack of breeze, this was always going to be a test of stamina and physical conditioning as well as skill.
Konta, who spent the first 13 years of her life in Sydney, usually handles the heat better than most. Although the Briton took time to find her rhythm, she never looked unduly troubled by the conditions.
"It was very humid out there," she said afterwards. "I have my protocol that I follow to try and stay in the best form that I can, hydrating well, making sure that I keep my energy levels up, but it's not easy for anyone out there." Both women are formidable ball-strikers. Keys hit twice as many winners as Konta (37 to 18), but the Briton made fewer unforced errors (20 to 35) and her superior movement usually told in the longer rallies.
Konta recovered from 0-40 down to hold serve in the sixth game of the opening set, but at 4-5 was unable to defend a second set point as Keys followed up a bold return with a forehand winner.
However, Konta struck the ball more consistently in the second set and at 2-2 started to turn the match around by breaking Keys to love.
Having served out to level the match, Konta broke to love again in the opening game of the deciding set. At 5-3 she closed out victory with another break of serve as a thumping backhand return forced Keys into an error.
Konta, who now plays Ajla Tomljanovic, said: "I knew that I was going to have opportunities to work my way into points and work my way into rallies and to string them together. I just trusted in my strength to be able to be out there as long as I needed to kind of bully my way into the match."
Asked if her run of defeats at the end of last season had been on her mind going into the match, Konta said: "Obviously you do take confidence and you do take match fitness from coming through matches, from winning matches, and if you go through a period where you are not able to do that, obviously it's a little tougher to feel that assertive. I definitely went through that.
"For sure it feels good to come through a match like that, especially in three sets and especially against someone like her. But I never lost faith in my ability. I think every player goes through periods in their career, multiple times, where things aren't turning out the way that you want them to."
Petra Kvitova's withdrawal from the tournament because of illness saw Heather Watson earn a place in the main draw as a "lucky loser", but the Briton, who lost in the final round of qualifying, was unable to take advantage of her second chance and was beaten 6-0, 6-3 by Estonia's Anett Kontaveit.
Ryan Harrison will be Andy Murray's first opponent in the tournament later this week after the American beat Argentina's Leonardo Mayer 6-4, 3-6, 6-2. Murray, who has a first-round bye, won his only previous meeting with Harrison at the Australian Open six years ago.