If Johanna Konta sometimes gives the impression she is playing tennis by numbers, the digits did not fall kindly for her against Sorana Cirstea on day four of this 2020 US Open tournament, and the British No 1 was released before time from the most oppressive bubble in sport.
On an empty Court 5, the Romanian with a single title to her name and a history of injuries upset the ninth seed 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in two hours and 50 minutes, and scrambles into the third round on merit and passion against the 20th seed, Karolina Muchova.
In a quick, brief press conference, Konta paid tribute to Cirstea. “There were things I might have tried at different times but I do think overall she was just the better player in the end,” she said.
Having come so close on many occasions, including three grand slam semi-finals, Konta still believes she can win one. “Yes I do. That’s why I keep playing, keep training. Yes, I do.”
Konta was “not fully certain”, though, about her immediate plans or her travel arrangements. “Obviously, the French [Open], but we’ll see before then what’s the plan and what awaits when we get back home.
“I don’t really know what the procedures are right now, either. As far as I understand I’m fairly certain that, because I’m coming from an elite bubble to enter another elite bubble, I go to the NTC [National Tennis Centre] when I go home. I think all I need to do is get a test done before I enter the NTC. I do know to go to Rome you have to have a test done within 48 or 72 hours, something like that. I guess we’ll see.”
Three years ago, Konta was reduced to tears on a court in Constanta when Romania’s Fed Cup coach, Ilie Nastase, gave her the benefit of his unfiltered views during a fraught win against Cirstea. The players hugged, metaphorically, and moved on but Konta’s bruises took a while to heal before they landed up here at the most surreal tournament of their careers.
There was a tumult that day. Here only the odd scream pierced the silence.
There was no early sign of trauma on a warm, quiet afternoon in Queens, and Konta’s game was so grooved she took her early break as if by right, then another – and the first set had flown by in a flurry of sharp, crisp groundstrokes behind her nagging serve, one of the best on the circuit.
An exchange of breaks at the start of the second interrupted Konta’s progress, but there was no sign of panic. If Konta bottles up her feelings, Cirstea does not and she was visibly buoyed when she went 3-2 up.
Anne Keothavong, Konta’s Fed Cup captain, explained on Prime during a break that the British No 1 had used occlusion training – which restricts blood flow to the affected area to aid muscle growth – looking for a cure to her long-time knee weakness. It appears to have worked, because her movement was free and strong.
However, Konta’s focus slipped when it should have sharpened. At 3-4,
Cirstea served a double-fault to give Konta an opening but fought for deuce. Konta found a sizzling inside‑out forehand for a second chance, blew it, got another with a two-fisted blast down the line for another, blew it, and Cirstea kissed the baseline to hold.
So instead of serving for the match Konta needed two holds to force the shootout. Against Heather Watson in their opening match, she saved four set points in the tie-break and prevailed. This time she fell behind 1-4, 2-5 and 2-6 before Cirstea let her back to 5-6 – then aced to level at a set apiece.
Now it was a one-set match. When Konta should have been heading for her biosecure hotel, she found herself a break down after three games. Grit and raw power from the back of the court got her back on level terms, and Cirstea berated herself loudly at 2-2.
Each point was more precious than the one before as they found energy where weariness had been. It was a desperate struggle, and compelling entertainment – but no fun for Konta who, in a marathon seventh game, saved five break points against Cirstea’s bewildering returns but could do nothing about her backhand chip on the run.
Cirstea, who had been down a set and a break, kept thrashing her lean right arm through her groundstrokes. Konta saved two match points, the second with her fifth ace, down the middle, and the match was on her opponent’s racket.
By increments in edgy rallies, she got there. She finished with an ace.