On a sweltering day in Melbourne, Britain’s Johanna Konta fell at the hands of Bernarda Pera, a 23-year-old Croatian-born American lucky loser from the qualifying competition.
Pera, who took injured Russian Margerita Gasparyan’s spot in the draw late on Sunday, is through to the third round of the Australian Open after ousting an out-of-sorts Konta, 6-4 7-5, for the biggest win of her career.
I think you obviously look to keep improving your game through training, but to be match fit and have that feel in points and feel in the way the match flows, and that almost not thinking belief in what you do in certain points, that comes with matches. And also coming through tough matches Jo Konta
“It feels amazing,” said Pera, who will face No 20 seed Barbora Strycova in the third round.
“I was ready to leave on Monday and then they told me I’m in, so I was obviously excited. I was checking the tickets to fly back. I’m happy I didn’t buy one.”
She was relentless throughout the contest, trading blows with the No 9 seed from the back of the court and dealing better with the hot, blustery conditions on Show Court 2 as Konta struggled from the outset, saving a break point in the opening game.
Konta’s serve lacked punch and the left-handed Pera capitalised when it mattered, converting her next break point for a 5-4 lead, serving out the set having dropped just seven points on serve.
They traded breaks early in the second before Pera moved 5-3 ahead and brought up her first match points with Konta, struggling with the sun, serving to stay in the match.
The Briton looked like she might have dug herself out of trouble when she saved three match points and then broke Pera but a Konta slip, her second of the match, contributed to Pera breaking again and this time she made no mistake.
The difference in the Konta who reached the quarter-finals here last season and the last four of Wimbledon was all too clear to see, and she knows the only way to address her issues is to win matches.
“There is no substitute,” she said. “I think you obviously look to keep improving your game through training, but to be match fit and have that feel in points and feel in the way the match flows, and that almost not thinking belief in what you do in certain points, that comes with matches. And also coming through tough matches.”
Konta’s immediate plan is to head home before linking up with the Great Britain Fed Cup team for a week of Europe/Africa Zone competition early next month.
The 26-year-old, who began working with new coach Michael Joyce in the off-season, remains confident she is heading in the right direction.
She said: “I’m definitely looking forward to Fed Cup. I’m actually looking forward to just continuing to play. I didn’t play very much in the last six months of last year, so I think I’m where I’m meant to be right now in my level. I feel it is getting better with each match that I’m playing. I’m figuring things out and enjoying doing it.”
Konta insists her Australian Open loss is not a ‘massive catastrophe’ as she contemplates her early flight home and there was no doubt the American played well above her ranking, but this was a poor performance from the Brit and another sign of the anxiety issues that have stemmed from the five-match losing sequence with which she finished 2017.
The World No 1 Simona Halep shrugged off concerns over her injured ankle and breezed into the third round with a straight-sets win over Eugenie Bouchard.
Halep was in clinical touch on the Margaret Court Arena, dispatching the Canadian, 6-2 6-2, in one hour and five minutes to set up a date with another surviving American Lauren Davis.
The Romanian broke Bouchard’s serve seven times and was dominant in the groundstroke battle, winning 44 points at the baseline compared to her opponent’s 17.
The biggest loss of the day was Garbiñe Muguruza to Hsieh Su-Wei, who soared in the scorching heat to shock the Spanish third seed, 7-6(1) 6-4, at Rod Laver Arena.
“I’ve been on tour too long, so there must be a few interesting matches in my life,” said the elated Chinese Taipei player. “Of course this is one of the biggest players I beat. So, it’s of course a great memory for me.”
The world No 88 previously only had one top-20 victory to her name and that was Konta at the French Open in 2017, but the 32-year-old counter-punched with aplomb to disguise her shots and quell the Wimbledon champion’s firepower.
Hsieh, a fourth round participant at Melbourne Park back in 2008, settled in following an exchange of breaks.
At the fourth attempt Hsieh redirected a piercing forehand down the line to post a 3-1 lead but, from 2-5, the World No 3 was able to find some rhythm and two holds to love enabled the Spaniard to force a tiebreak in which she slumped, her power and serve deserting her when needed the most.
Hseih relentlessly targeted the Muguruza forehand, which broke down to offer up another 3-1 advantage for her perplexing opponent, and a seismic shock was on the cards when the third seed sent a routine volley long to fall 2-5 behind.
The deficit was reduced, but when the pressure mounted and Hsieh served for the match, the former doubles world No 1 managed to strike a laser-like backhand passing shot, before closing out a career-best win in style with a smartly deflected backhand winner.
“She’s definitely a very tricky opponent,” said Muguruza. “I think today she played well. I maybe could have done things better, but in the end, she deserves to win.”
Hsieh, advancing to face 26th seed Agnieszka Radwanska in the third round, was delighted with her mental fortitude against a top ranked player.
“It’s never easy to play against Top 20 girls. I think mentally for sure they are much better than us, so when we go on the court we have to forget who they are, and to focus on our game,” she said.
“I knew the weather was going to be a little bit tough today because I hear weather going to be over 39 degrees. I was thinking, ‘Ah, I’m from Asia. I maybe can handle it better than other girls.’”
Three other seeds also fell this day – Elena Vesnina (16) from Russia to Japan’s Naomi Osaka, 7-6(4) 6-2; Mirjana Lucic-Baroni from Croatia to the Belarusian Aliaksandra Sasnovic, 6-3 6-1; and Anastasija Sevastova from Latvia to Russia’s Maria Sharapova.
That Sharapova came through is unsurprising despite the fact that Sevastova scored a win over her last year and has a knack for making matters difficult for her.
“Well, I had really tough matches against her,” Sharapova said. “Despite winning our last match, I faced two match points and barely got through that one, 7-6 in the third.
“You know, it’s a warm day. I did my job in two sets against someone that’s been troubling in the past for me. So third round of the Australian Open, I don’t know, I think I deserve to smile out there after that victory.”
Sevastova, 27, gave up the game for two years from 2013 due to persistent injuries, and wore heavy strapping on her right thigh.
Although the first set slipped quickly the way of the Russian, the Latvian turned things around in the second and very nearly forced a decider as Sharapova began to tighten when serving for the match at 5-4 in the second on Rod Laver Arena.
With a career-high seeding of No 14 at a Grand Slam, Sevastova persisted with her mix of heavily sliced backhands and looping, deep forehands to break for 5-5 and a tiebreak ultimately decided the match.
Sharapova, who knows only a full-on approach, wanted none of a third set and nailed it on her third match point.
Another former World No 1Angelique Kerber will be her next opponent, having got past Donna Vekic as the stage is set for a battle between the only two former champions in the draw.
“I’m around 50 in the world at this point, so I know I’m going to be facing seeded players, first, second, third round,” Sharapova said. “She happens to be the next one that’s in the draw that I have to play.
“I look forward to these matches. I want to be playing against opponents that [are] former Grand Slam champions.
“She’s had success playing out here in these conditions on these courts. I want to see where I am on that level.”
Thursday was Kerber’s 30th birthday and she celebrated with an emphatic 6-4 6-1 win over Vekic, taking her match winning run to seven since the start of the year.
She is enjoying a resurgence, having won the Sydney International in the lead-up, and the German looks to be recapturing the form that propelled her to the 2016 title at Melbourne Park and the top slot in the world rankings.
In scorching conditions at Margaret Court Arena, she gave the 52nd-ranked Croatian the run-around with a series of deft drop-shots and closed out the one-sided match with a confident cross-court smash.
“It’s just amazing how the time is flying,” said Kerber, who struggled for form through a difficult 2017 season.
“I‘m feeling good, it’s good to win today, of course, on my birthday. Now I think the work pays off and it’s just the beginning of the year.”
Kerber has turned over a new leaf in a number of ways, parting ways with long-time coach Torben Beltz in November, the man who guided her to two Grand Slam titles and the World No 1 in 2016 during an eight-year partnership.
She is now guided by prominent Belgian coach Wim Fissette, who split with Romanian top seed Simona Halep at the end of the 2016 season.
The heat tested the patience of both players during the match, while Vekic got frazzled by a wailing baby in the terraces when serving in the second set.
She remonstrated with chair umpire Renaud Lichtenstein but was quickly dismissed.
“Donna, it’s a baby … I don’t want to kick out a baby,” the Frenchman snapped.
Kerber’s match against five-times Grand Slam champion Sharapova will be a duel of thirty-something players, and the German said she took heart from the longevity of tour veterans like Serena Williams and Roger Federer.
“Yeah, getting older. I was waking up this morning, I say, ‘OK, the ‘2’ is gone right now,’” she said with a smile.
“I‘m looking forward to the thirties … I‘m feeling the same like yesterday.
“I am feeling healthy. I’m still fit. I am still enjoying my tennis. I’m not looking too much about the age, just how I’m feeling. I’m still feeling young.”
Also enjoying her tennis is Ashleigh Barty, the Australian No 1, who had to come from behind for the second time this week to win through against Italy’s Camila Giorgi.
The 7-5 6-4 6-1 victory backed up Barty’s run to the final 32 at Melbourne Park last year and set up another winnable match against Japanese teenager Naomi Osaka on Saturday.
“This is amazing. Nothing better than playing on this court, the best court in Australia. I’m lucky to be out here for the second time in a row,” Barty beamed.
With the temperature still in the high 30s at Rod Laver Arena on Thursday night, the 21-year-old withstood plenty of heat from the hard-hitting Giorgi.
Barty hadn’t lost to the Italian in their previous two encounters but Giorgi has shown some stellar form this summer, reaching the semi-finals in Sydney.
As Giorgi blasted winners from both sides, the World No17 was happy to play the waiting game, showing her growing maturity.
Reminiscent of her first-round win over Aryna Sabalenka, when she also clawed her way back from a first set deficit, Barty showed patience beyond her 21 years.
The match went with serve in the first set until Giorgi snatched the break for a 5-3 lead.
The Australian broke straight back only to concede again on the back of a loose service game, with Giorgi then steaming ahead to take the first set.
Barty served for the second set after the pair traded breaks amongst some pulsating rallies only for Giorgi to unleash a huge forehand to save her skin, but up 5-4 and with three set points, the Aussie broke her opponent again to win the second and regain level pegging.
The deciding set was one-way traffic with Barty’s serve doing plenty of damage as Giorgi wilted and with two match points in hand, the Queenslander laid down her 12th ace to secure the win.
Barty has never played Osaka before, and victory over Osaka could put her into a last-16 clash with Simona Halep.