Konta qualifies for US Open main draw at first attempt

 

Flushing Meadows

The changing of the guard in British women's tennis continues. While Elena Baltacha, so long the standard-bearer, prepares for ankle surgery that will keep her off the court for at least six months, 21-year-old Johanna Konta will make her first appearance in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament outside Wimbledon here this week.

Konta, born in Australia, was awarded British citizenship this year and made her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon two months ago with a wild card. At the US Open she has had to earn her passage. In her first attempt to qualify for any Grand Slam, the world No 205 won three matches in a row against higher-ranked opponents.

After finding a way past Chinese Taipei's Kai-Chen Chang (world No 114) and Japan's Kurumi Nara (159), Konta saved her gutsiest performance for last, beating China's Zhang Shuai (195) 6-4 3-6 7-5 in heat and humidity late on Friday.

Having had two match points at 5-1 in the deciding set, Konta lost four games in a row, but recovered to secure victory after two hours and 47 minutes. If there were times when she made too many mistakes, the match also demonstrated her shot-making ability, physical strength – she is 5ft 11in and a good all-round athlete – and mental toughness.

"It was a little overwhelming because it was my first ever qualifying event for a Slam," Konta admitted afterwards. "It was nerve-racking in parts. I'm very happy to have closed it out at the end. What I have learned about myself here is how I can deal with the occasion and situations that arise. It's a big stage. The more I play on a big stage, the more I learn about myself and how I'm able to deal with it.

"I love the US Open. It was my first junior event, back in 2007. I definitely have a spot for it. I love New York City, so I'm obviously very happy to be here. I'm enjoying this whole experience."

Konta, who now plays Hungary's Timea Babos (59) in the main draw, made her Grand Slam debut this summer at Wimbledon, where she almost pulled off an upset before losing 10-8 in the final set to Christina McHale, then the world No 32.

"It was definitely a painful loss, but everyone was very supportive," Konta recalled. "There were a lot of people in the crowd on my side, which was surprising because I'm still a new Brit, but it felt very nice at the same time."

Having recovered from an ankle problem which had troubled her during the grass season, Konta has since been playing on hard courts on the International Tennis Federation circuit in North America. She lost in the final in Lexington, Kentucky, where she said the heat was "brutal" but good preparation for New York. After the US Open she will play in Asia, and her main goal for the rest of the year will be to secure a place in the Australian Open at the start of 2013.

Konta has British, Australian and Hungarian passports. Her Hungarian parents emigrated to Australia and she was born in Sydney, where she spent her first 13 years. The family moved to Britain seven years ago. Konta now lives in Eastbourne and trains at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton, where the coach Louis Cayer is overseeing her. Her application for British citizenship was finally concluded this summer.

"It was a painful long wait," Konta said. "I've lived in the country since 2005, so I was still a young teenager when I moved here and it's very much home. Finally having GB next to my name feels right."

Konta is one of three British women under the age of 21 who will be playing here this week. Heather Watson, aged 20, who at No 70 is the highest-ranked Briton, has a tough task against China's Li Na, the 2011 French Open champion, but arrives fresh from winning her second doubles title of the summer in the Texas Open in Dallas.

Meanwhile 18-year-old Laura Robson should fancy her chances against the 17-year-old American Samantha Crawford, the world No 394. "It feels good to be in the main draw of a Grand Slam on my ranking for the first time in my career," Robson said as she looked forward to the unusual experience of playing an opponent younger than her. "I intend to build on the results that I have had in Europe this summer."

Robson reached the semi-finals of a main Tour event in Palermo after Wimbledon and went on to a good Olympics. In singles she beat Lucie Safarova – at world No 23 the Czech was Robson's highest-ranked victim so far – before losing to Maria Sharapova, after which she joined Andy Murray to win silver in the mixed doubles.

For the sixth Grand Slam in succession there will be four or more British women in the main draw. The British line-up here is completed by 28-year-old Anne Keothavong. The world No 80 faces Germany's Angelique Kerber, world No 6, in the first round.

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