Johanna Konta insisted her Australian Open loss to lucky loser Bernarda Pera was not a “massive catastrophe” as she contemplated an early flight home (writes Eleanor Crooks).
The ninth seed had been tipped as one of the contenders for the title in a wide open field after reaching the semi-finals and quarter-finals in the last two years.
Konta looked in good form in her opening win over Madison Brengle but struggled to find her game in very hot conditions at Melbourne Park and came up against an inspired opponent, who claimed a 6-4 7-5 victory.
Pera, a Croatian-born American ranked 123, had never even played in a grand slam tournament let alone won a match before arriving in Australia and appeared to be going home after losing to Viktorija Golubic in the final round of qualifying only to be given a second chance when Margarita Gasparyan withdrew.
There was no doubt the 23-year-old played well above her ranking but this was a poor performance from Konta and another sign of the anxiety issues that have stemmed from the five-match losing sequence with which she finished 2017.
Konta said: “I think she played very inspired and I didn’t quite do as much as I wanted. I think in the points I did okay, and I think I stayed quite strong. But I don’t think I did enough with my service games, and I don’t think I did enough with my returns.
“It’s a bit frustrating, but I’m still taking good stuff from this. I don’t feel, by any means, it’s a massive catastrophe. I play every event to be there until the end, so I definitely don’t want to be going home this early.
“But I think in terms of building myself back up again and then playing the way I want to play, I think I keep moving forward.”
Konta has been open about the struggles she went through at the end of last season and made an encouraging start to the new year by reaching the quarter-finals in Brisbane before a hip problem struck.
But here her tension was betrayed by a lack of clarity of thought, while she shanked two smashes, including one on match point, and mis-hit a serve so badly it landed on the baseline.
She looked like she might have dug herself out of trouble when she saved three match points at 5-3 and then broke Pera when she served for the match. 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 was 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.”