Johanna Konta suffers shock defeat at Australian Open to 'lucky loser' Bernarda Pera
It all went Pera-shaped for British No 1 Johanna Konta in Melbourne this morning, as she suffered a shock defeat at the hands of world No 123 Bernarda Pera.
Admittedly, Konta has been struggling since her semi-final appearance at Wimbledon, having won only five of 13 matches in that time. But this was still a startling result, given that Pera – who is 23 – had never played in a grand slam before.
In fact, she had lost in the final round of qualifying to Viktorija Golubic, only to be awarded a “lucky loser” spot when Margarita Gasparyan withdrew from the main draw.
Pera – who is known as “Bernie” to her friends – seemed to benefit from her unorthodox entry to the tournament. Playing with house money can be very liberating, and she swung with great vigour and freedom on the way to her 6-4, 7-5 victory.
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But on a day of roasting temperatures in Melbourne, Konta – who was the ninth seed here – was oddly ineffectual. Her woes started with her serve – which lacked its usual penetration – and continued through a number of bizarre bloopers: two tumbles at the back of the court, two shanked smashes, and a second serve that flew off the frame of the racket and landed somewhere near the baseline.
For this ever-methodical player, it felt as if her central processing chip was malfunctioning in the heat.
Konta had not lost to such a low-ranked player since May 2015, when she was still a long way outside the top 100 herself. So it was surprising to hear her claim afterwards that “I'm where I'm meant to be right now in my level. Whether you guys can tell or not, I feel it is getting better with each match that I'm playing.”
Yet Konta seemed to contradict herself in a surprisingly upbeat press conference. Only a couple of minutes earlier, she had admitted that “My serve definitely let me down a little bit today. When I'm not serving the way I want to, I don't think I'm putting as much pressure on them in their service games, as well.”
There was a moment, deep in the second set, when it seemed that Konta might emulate Wednesday’s escapologist Caroline Wozniacki by coming back to win after saving multiple match points. She stood on the brink three times while serving at 3-5, but once that danger had been averted, she broke a nervous-looking Pera to level the set at 5-5.
But Pera did not stay shaky for long. Rather than backing off, she ramped up her own aggression with some scorching returns to break straight back and re-establish control. A stylish left-hander, she said after the match that “My goal was to keep her running, [because] she obviously doesn’t like defending.”
In these final stages, Konta’s programming seemed to break down completely, and the snafus mentioned earlier – the stumbles and the shanks – proved crucial.
Having already failed to close out four match points, Pera finally closed the deal on a muffed overhead from Konta. The ball ricocheted off the frame of her racket and struck the backboard without bouncing.
As someone who likes to find a groove in her tennis, Konta had wanted more matches coming into this event. Her preparations were undermined by the minor hip twinge that cropped up a fortnight ago, forcing her to abandon her Brisbane quarter-final against Elina Svitolina.
Asked for explanations for her underpowered serving, Konta replied “I don't actually specifically know. I think that's another part to do with playing lots of matches and getting that match fitness, match confidence.
“I think it is especially tricky in the ranking bracket that I'm in, because you will come up against girls on a consistent basis who are inspired to be playing you. “So I think it's a really great problem to have, but it is also something that I'm looking to take in my stride and keep working on.”
“It's a bit frustrating, but I think I'm still taking good stuff from this. I don't feel, by any means, that it's a massive catastrophe.”