US Open 2016: Johanna Konta battles through health scare, heat and Pironkova
Johanna Konta reaches the US Open third round despite collapsing on court during her match against Tsvetana Pironkova
Johanna Konta, the No13 seed and top-ranked British woman, was full of confidence as she sailed into the second round of the tournament that has been the scene of such strides in her career—her first Major match-win in 2012, her first Major fourth round in 2015.
She followed the victorious Kyle Edmund onto Court 13 on a body-sappingly hot and humid afternoon, but as Konta pronounced in her very first press conference this year, “I really like the heat… I was born in Australia!”
She had already dismissed Bethanie Mattek-Sands with ease, though that was at a slightly cooler hour of the evening. However, the super-fit Konta was perhaps the last person in the tournament likely to succumb to the conditions.
She took on Tsvetana Pironkova, ranked No71 but a former No31. The tall Bulgarian had enjoyed some decent form this year, including wins over Sara Errani and Agnieszka Radwanska to reach the quarters of the French Open.
However, she was comprehensively outplayed in the first set by Konta, whose confidence seems to grow every time she steps on the courts at the US Open. It took just 28 minutes, Konta making nine winners to one, 6-2.
But the Briton gave up an early break in the second set as Pirinkova upped her level to match Konta at her own game. Both fired deep and with great angles, in stamina-draining rallies. The Bulgarian levelled at 3-3, and they headed point by point, with little between them, to 6-5 in Pironkova’s favour.
By now, Konta began to look red in the face, was taking deep breaths, and was wrapped in an ice-collar at every change of ends. The breaking point came as she served to take it to a tie-breaker, with the set already an hour old.
Twice she faced break point, which would take the match to third set—the last thing she wanted—and four times to deuce. The rallies were long and arduous, both women running the full width of the baseline, but Pironkova looked the quicker.
The Bulgarian worked a third break point, Konta missed her first serve, and paused as the game went beyond 10 minutes. She bent double, went down on all fours, clearly in distress and panting.
The umpire came to her assistance, brought a towel for her to lie on, and ice was draped around her shoulders, across her body, and rubbed on her limbs.
The distressing scene seemed to last hours rather than minutes, with Konta now lying on the baseline. Medics arrived to take her blood pressure, listen to her heart, take her temperature. Eventually she was moved to her chair and massaged with bags of ice. She had, she explained, suddenly felt breathless, felt her heart race, felt dizzy—no doubt the result of hyperventilating.
This would surely be a default, and Pironkova waited courtside for the news, but it did not come. Konta would continue: She double faulted on that break point, conceding the set 7-5, and went for a bathroom break to change her clothes.
Perhaps Pironkova should have followed her rather than sit out another long break, but she did not. Perhaps she, like the rest the crowds watching, thought Konta would concede or, at the very least, be unable to put up much resistance.
But the Bulgarian was wrong. Instead, Konta kept calm, took her time, and adjusted her tactics to shorten the points.
Drop shots appeared, sometimes outright winners, sometimes enough to draw a high ball that she could put away. She even chased down a Pironkova drop-shot to break in the first game, and held for 2-0.
Pironkova kept to her previous game, plying the lines and corners with deep forehands and backhands, but Konta took the ball out of the air when she could—and drop-shopped again.
She held for 3-1 but found herself in a battle to keep her advantage in the fourth game, 4-2. However Pironkova floundered, Konta broke, and served out what will probably be the most memorable win of her life, 6-2, after more than two hours 32 minutes.
Their handshake was courteous if not warm, but Pironkova’s head slumped as she walked from a court and match she should probably have won. She was, indeed, courteous enough to talk to the media after the event about the amount of time that the match was halted.
“She played really well. There was one controversial moment in the match. Obviously she wasn’t feeling well, I could see that, so we lost some time there. And what was frustrating for me was what happened after that, the toilet break, because I think the match was just stopped too long.
“I was getting back into the match, I had a hard start, but by the end of the second set—well, probably that break [smiling] stopped my momentum. But I don’t want to make excuses.
“Everything was by the rules, and if I agree with the rules, today I am not very happy about these rules, if you are able to go and change your clothes after every set… but these are the rules.”
Konta, a depleted figure in her chair, had shown great physical determination to ride out her crisis, but arguably even greater mental fortitude.
She said: “Basically I was feeling a little bit the conditions, and also my own energy levels. I was just managing the best that I could with what I had today. My heart rate spiked and I couldn’t really control my breathing. I started hyperventilating. I started shaking… That’s why I went down on the ground, because I was quite violently shaking.”
“Because I’d experienced it once before I didn’t start crying… So I knew straightaway I needed to get ice on myself, try to get my breathing down, start to calm myself down and in turn my muscles and my heart calmed down as well.”
“My opponent, she was gracious, and she was also very, I felt, understanding of the situation that was going on.”
Her reward, though she will not want to contemplate it just yet, is a meeting with the 19-year-old No24 seed, Belinda Bencic, who is returning from injury. These two have played each other three times before, with Bencic winning two of them in three sets.
That is a scenario Konta will not to repeat.