Johanna Konta is in the same quarter of the draw as Serena Williams but their respective victories on day two confirmed the British player’s suspicions that the American remains the player to beat at this Australian Open.
Konta, ranked 38 in the world and yet to get past the semi-finals of a slam, took just under three hours to beat the Australian Ajla Tomljanovic 7-6 (7-4), 2-6, 7-6 (10-7) on Court 3, while Williams, owner of 23 majors, spent 49 minutes in accounting for the weak challenge of the unseeded German, Tatjama Maria, 6-0, 6-2. That is some gap to bridge if they both reach the quarter-finals.
Konta looked as if she were disappearing from view at 0-3, but she steeled herself to the task and won four games on the spin. After half an hour, she’d rattled an opponent only nine points removed from her in the rankings.
Tennis truly is a market place for players searching for a home that suits. Both are expatriates, of sorts: Konta, Sydney-born with a Bournemouth finishing-school swish of the ponytail about her; Tomljanovic, Zagreb-born and now a proud Australian, with all the attitude that such a shift entails.
It served her well in a fightback that took them to a tie-break, where they changed ends on level terms before Konta grabbed two set points with a superb crosscourt backhand. She finished the job just past the hour by cramping Tomljanovic on the baseline and the reply dribbled into the lower net.
The exchanges were running along conventional lines until the sixth game of the second set when Konta absolutely butchered a volley that would have left them level. She baulked at the next chance when the ball sat up, pushing a forehand wide to hand her opponent break point. She paid the price for her tentativeness when Tomljanovic, down on her haunches at the back of the court, stuck a brilliant winner down the deuce side to lead 4-2.
When she held for 5-2 and broke again to level the mini-crisis deepened for Britain’s No 1.
Tomljanovic was not pleased when Konta took five minutes for a toilet break before the deciding set, and became further agitated when it took her nine minutes to hold in the first service game. The momentum, which had been with the Australian, now switched. Konta had three chances to break in the third game but, on two hours, Tomljanovic held.
Meanwhile, on Rod Laver Arena, Williams was hitting poor Maria off the court for the loss of five points in an 18-minute first set. There was a minor fightback in the second set but the result was inevitable.
Back on Court 3, Konta and Tomljanovic worked their way to another champions’ tie-break, and the home player pounced on a couple of poor drop shots to lead 4-2. Staring at the exit, Konta wobbled but an ace kept her in touch at 5-6. They exchanged errors on the way to 7-7, with Konta serving. With memories of her botched volley fresh, she made sure of a full toss to take the lead, receiving, stretching it to 9-7 and two match points with a cool forehand winner. The final shot of the match was a superb crosscourt forehand into the ad corner, after two hours and 51 minutes.
It was a solid, quality win. On Tuesday’s early evidence, however, if Konta gets as far as the quarters, she is likely to face an altogether different challenge.