Two years ago this week, Johanna Konta was photographed jumping for joy on the sands of Key Biscayne – the tropical island that used to host the Miami Open. She had just won a prize cheque of around £950,000, along with the biggest title claimed by a British woman since Virginia Wade lifted the Venus Rosewater Dish at Wimbledon in 1977.
What a contrast, then, to the scenes under the Hard Rock Stadium late on Friday night. As she arrived in the interview area, Konta was still digesting the loss of ten straight games in her second-round meeting with China’s Qiang Wang, who thus prevailed by a 6-4, 6-0 scoreline.
For a moment, when Konta responded to a gentle opening question with 15 seconds of silence, reporters thought that she was struggling to compose herself. In fact, she was just pausing for one of the tannoy announcements that boom around the passageways, calling the next pair of players to court. But the reply, when it came, was still revealing.
“She’s been playing very good tennis,” said Konta. “So I knew that if I didn’t keep up a certain level then it could run away easily – and it did. Which is quite frustrating, obviously. I’ve come off the court feeling quite down about it.”
Now ranked at No. 38 in the world, Konta is still a player no-one can afford to take lightly. Yet her game has lost the edge that carried her to a high point of No. 4 in July 2017. When she arrived in New York that summer, five months after her Miami win, she went into the US Open with a chance of seizing the top spot – a point highlighted by the Loews Regency Hotel in Manhattan when they staged a “Power Breakfast” to promote her brand.
Instead, Konta came up against an inspired Aleksandra Krunic – the same diminutive Serbian whom she beat to complete Great Britain’s triumphant Fed Cup campaign in Bath last month – and suffered a first-round loss that developed into a full-blown crisis of confidence. The best description she has yet given of this period came during her address to the Oxford Union in November, when she said “The term we use is burnout … [In 2017] I experienced my own off-switch and I simply couldn’t tolerate the stress, the expectation.”
So where is she now? Konta’s game is beginning to rebuild itself, judging by a minor uptick in her ranking. During her narrow loss to Garbine Muguruza in Melbourne – in an absurdly late match that only finished as the refuse collectors were beginning their rounds – she struck the ball more cleanly than she had since her run to the 2017 Wimbledon semi-final. But what she hasn’t been able to regain is the psychological balance that underpinned her best performances.
Friday night’s match was a good example, because Konta lost her composure after an outbreak of dreadful line calling. This Miami Open has been blighted by some dismal decisions, partly as a result of the rain delays that forced extra matches to be staged through the second half of last week. No additional officials were drafted in, which left six-person skeleton crews to work the courts rather than the usual eight.
The tension boiled up as Konta allowed her 4-2 first-set lead to slip away. Both players had reason for complaint, but there was a particularly frustrating moment when Konta held a break point that would have levelled things up at 5-5. She struck a scorching return back at Wang’s feet, only for the baseline judge to inexplicably flag the ball out. The point was replayed, but she missed her return this time, and muttered angrily under her breath. Although she did not explode in the manner of Dan Evans, who berated “the clown in the chair” during a poorly umpired match of his own last week, Konta never fully recovered her poise.
“That’s what you get when you play on a court without Hawk-Eye,” said Konta in relation to the schedulers who put her on Court 9 – the furthest-flung and least kitted-out match court at Hard Rock Stadium, and again a far cry from the matches she played on the main arena at Crandon Park. “It’s always harder to handle [a bad line call] in the moment, and especially when it comes at quite tricky times as well.
“It could just as easily have happened the other way,” she added, perhaps remembering the bizarre moment when Wang was docked a point for “hindrance” – meaning that she shouted out during the rally – even though the yelp came before Wang had actually struck the ball.
“But yeah, it’s just unfortunate that I couldn’t quite get back to the space I was in [early on]. I basically did nowhere enough to give her competition in the second set.”
Wang earned a free pass into the fourth round on Saturday night, when Serena Williams pulled out of the tournament citing a knee injury. The news meant that Williams has only completed seven matches this season, and has now withdrawn from three of the ten tournaments she has entered since her comeback from maternity leave just over a year ago.
Konta meanwhile was followed out of the tournament on Saturday by Dan Evans, a 4-6, 6-1, 6-3 loser at the hands of 19-year-old Canadian prodigy Denis Shapovalov. Which left Kyle Edmund, scheduled to face 12th seed Milos Raonic on Sunday evening, as the last Briton standing.