Johanna Konta’s biggest challenge at Wimbledon this week may be finding ingredients for a cake she has promised to bake for gluten-free and worryingly thin pescatarian Novak Djokovic – or, more seriously, handling the pumped-up challenge of one very angry Slovak, Dominika Cibulkova.
Konta survived a stern test by the 21-year-old Russian Natalia Vikhlyantseva, who saved five match points before the British No 1 eked out a nervous 7-5, 7-6 (7) win in the swirling breeze on No 2 Court and plays Cibulkova in the second round on Thursday.
Cibulkova, twice a quarter-finalist at Wimbledon, has been seething since the All England Club bounced her from the protection of the top 32 seedings in favour of Serena Williams, and presents a threat to Konta when they meet for the fourth time.
Konta, who beat her in straight sets in Cincinnati last year, and likewise in Stanford the year before, knows what she is up against: a higher level problem than the one she had to solve on Tuesday.
“I’m looking forward to it,” she said. “She’s probably one of the best competitors on tour, has been for quite some time. She’s a feisty player. I think it will be a great test to keep a good focus on controlling what I can, accept she’s going to fight her way into some points and stay there until the very end. That’s a good ask of me to make sure I stay there too.”
Staying there would seem to be a minimum requirement and Konta is pretty good at it, despite a worrying dip in form. After ending last season at No 9 in the world, she arrived at Wimbledon – where 12 months ago she became the first British women semi-finalist in 39 years – ranked 24.
It may be that change in fortunes constitutes part of the bond she has with Djokovic, the former world No 1 whose ranking has slipped to 21 because of injury and inactivity. In a casual aside during the Rome Open, Konta promised she would bake him at cake at Wimbledon. Now she has to deliver.
“He’s a no-sugar, no-dairy [guy], but I can do alternatives to sugar, xylitol, alternatives to dairy, coconut milk, almond milk,” she enthused. “I haven’t thought up or even researched a recipe for something like that.”
As incidental as that might be to the workaday narrative of her involvement in the tournament, she does appear relaxed – certainly more so than in Paris, where she railed at the media (ever so politely) for rudely pointing out she had gone out in the first round again.
There was only fleeting danger of that against Vikhlyantseva, who played way above her 103 world ranking and came into Wimbledon on the back of four straight defeats. She stayed with Konta most of the way over an hour and 47 minutes in difficult conditions.
They were on level terms for a quarter of an hour, with several combative exchanges, full of heavily struck ground strokes from deep and some big serving. Konta cracked the deadlock after half an hour and served the set out to love.
She appeared to be cruising in the second set until Vikhlyantseva found a rhythm that upset Konta’s concentration, and, in a burst of scoring towards the end, forced the tie-break. She dug deep there as well, saving five match points before Konta forced a final weary reply out of her near the baseline.
“It was a tough match, Konta said. “She has a big game. When someone serves well, when someone has a good first strike, that makes it quite tricky. She made me work for it very hard.”
Getting Konta to analyse her tennis is tough at the best of times, and almost impossible once a tournament has started, so she did not offer much that was helpful – to either the media or her opponents.
She “took a lot” from the way she competed after being broken twice in the second set, she said, adding these “ebb and flow” matches bring satisfaction of their own kind.
And she refused to be drawn on how she thought her game measured up to the superb tennis that took her within a match of the final last year.
“I’m not playing this year’s championships on how I played last year. It’s a completely separate year, separate championships. I take forward the incredible experience and the memories of last year, and I thank them very much. But I’m here as a 2018 Johanna Konta. I’m playing it on the challenges and the triumphs of here and now.”
Konta would make a superb spy. The cruellest interrogator would get nothing from her.
She did open up a little to the Guardian at the weekend, however, telling the magazine that her greatest achievement was, “Being happy. I think that transcends the results of my matches, the so-called successes or failures.”
There is no argument with that as a general philosophy but sport is all about successes and failures. Otherwise, she would not have been quite so upset with us at Roland Garros in May. She cares about the score, all right.
Dominika Cibulkova wary of aggressive Konta
Cibulkova has bemoaned the draw that left her unseeded and facing last year’s semi-finalist before the first week is out.
Cibulkova beat Alizé Cornet 7-6 (3), 6-1 but was not happy at the prospect of facing Johanna Konta.
When asked if the easy victory over Cornet had been one positive outcome of the draw Cilbukova said: “I don’t know if there’s a positive to this. There’s nothing positive about playing Johanna Konta in the second round. It will be a tough one, she is playing aggressive. It would have been easier if we had played in the third or fourth round but the draw is what it is. I don’t want to put my mind to how it could have been different. The draw is here.”
Cibulkova would have been the final seed at No 32, the seeding occupied by Agnieska Radwanska, who had to save six match points to get past Elena-Gabriela Ruse.
Broken in her opening service game against Cornet, Cibulkova clawed her way back, breaking back at 2-4 and going on to claim a tie-break 7-3. The second set was a formality with her power proving too much for the French player.
“I’ve played Konta twice but never on grass,” Cibulkova said. “I’m feeling fine on grass. The crowd has been behind her but it won’t affect me. I’m playing better and better, and I won this match with some very good tennis.”