French Open 2019: Johanna Konta wins first ever match in Paris
Petra Kvitova withdraws with injury, Caroline Wozniacki beaten
It seems no time at all since the top-ranked British woman, Johanna Konta, was ranked 47 in the world. Indeed it was less than a month ago, in the aftermath to her bold and ultimately rewarding fight in Fed Cup in London—when she switched to clay.
And the former world No4, twice a Major semi-finalist and close to the top of her game back in 2017, began to turn the tide in what had been a confidence-sapping slip in form.
It may be no coincidence that she began working with new coach Dimitri Zavialoff at the end of last season, nor that she has begun to work with sports psychologist Lorenzo Beltrame. For it is no secret how much Konta was helped with her confidence by Juan Coto, who died suddenly a couple of years ago.
It is certainly no coincidence that she has begun to enjoy playing on the red dirt more than ever. She arrived in Paris having reached the final in Rabat and then the final in the big Rome Premier that leads the tour to Roland Garros. There, she beat both Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens, both from a set down, in a display of determination, focus, and not a little physical resilience and endurance. And it took her into the seedings in Paris, ranked 26.
It all boded well for a player who has found the French Open an especially difficult place to make inroads. In four previous visits, the Briton had never made it beyond the first round. Now, playing a qualifier in her opener, here was a great opportunity to jump that hurdle.
She played the 6ft1in German Antonia Lottner, who had reached this stage in Paris for the first time. But the big-hitting 22-year old, ranked 147, had come through qualifying without dropping a set, so she was grooved into the clay of Roland Garros.
Konta made a shaky start, too, broken in the first game, but quickly regrouped with some impressive first-strike returns to break back. This time she held to love and then broke again with some big, clean ball striking from the baseline.
Not that the German backed off, and the two women exchanged breaks again. Now, Konta stood her ground in the face of a break point to lead 5-2, but again Lottner hit back, pulling off a drop-shot winner to convert two more break chances as Konta served for the set. Could Konta put that behind her?
The answer came in the next game, as the Briton deployed her newest weapon, the drop shot, to earn a break chance. And it was Lottner who wavered, threw in timid first serve and was duly punished. Konta broke for the set, 6-4, after 40 minutes.
The second set remained tightly contested through to a near-identical conclusion. Konta won 16 from 19 first serves, twice holding to love, while Lottner also found her best serving to hold off break points with four straight points in the fourth game.
Konta showed her resolve in holding off three break points in the ninth game, and that seemed to knock the stuffing out of the German: Konta broke for set and match, 6-4, in an hour and 19 minutes.
And yes, on paper she was favoured to win this match as the considerably higher-ranked player. But that had not helped in her last three matches at Roland Garros, when she was defeated by lower-ranked players.
Yet it was not getting that first win out of the way that stood out for Konta in the win. She said:
“I think more than anything, I was just pleased with how I was able to handle the challenges. I mean, against her, there wasn’t much rhythm in the match. I think that presents its own type of rhythm and own type of challenge. I was just happy that I was able to really stay calm through that.
“And also when I found myself in tricky situations or break points down or points where the match could have swung either way, I thought I stayed quite calm. And I think just trusted myself enough to be able to handle whatever was going to come.”
Konta next plays wild card Lauren Davis, who beat Kristyna Pliskova 6-2, 6-4, to score only her second ever match-win in the tournament: Her first was in her debut appearance in 2012.
She has played Davis three times before, and the American won their only clay meeting—but that was seven years ago, and they have not met since 2013.
The door opens, then, for Konta to take another step into the unknown, though beyond Davis, her most likely opponent will be one of the favourites for the title, the No4 seed Kiki Bertens. The Dutch woman won the Madrid title and made the semis in Rome—where she was beaten by Konta.
Elsewhere in Konta’s half, No13 seed Caroline Wozniacki let a 6-0, 1-0 lead slip away to the young Russian Veronika Kudermetova. The athletic, all-court attack of the young woman playing her first Roland Garros main draw, proved too much for the Dane: Kudermetova won 0-6, 6-3 6-3, closing out her victory with a volley winner.
Also losers in the first round were No18 Julia Goerges to Kaia Kanepi, and No32 seed Aliasksandra Sasnovich to Polona Hercog.
There was sad news for fans of Petra Kvitova, who made her return from an attack to her left hand right here two years ago. The No6 seed announced her withdrawal from the draw with a left arm injury.