ROME, Italy - Johanna Konta has been talking about her growing comfort on clay recently, and she demonstrated it today with a superb 6-3, 6-0 victory over Yulia Putintseva in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
"You need to play yourself a little bit into the match and into the tournament," Konta said about the nearly two-hour victory. "I felt that my level did improve, especially at the beginning of that second set pretty much through to the end. I think scoreline-wise, it doesn't really represent, one, the length of the match. We played just under two hours. We had a lot of games that were very much back and forth.
"I'm happy to have come through that. I think I battled quite well, and I competed well. I needed to stay mentally quite tough against someone like Yulia, as well."
On paper, this was one of the most intriguing matches of the day. Konta, the No.5 seed, had just three WTA Tour main draw wins on clay to her name prior to today; her 22-year-old opponent had made her debut Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros last year.
The British player had in fact won their only previous encounter, also on clay, in the first round of Oeiras qualifying in 2013, 4-6, 6-1, 7-5 - but if today's rematch was less of a struggle, it was also far from the easy ride that the scoreline suggests.
The Kazakh is known as one of the WTA's foremost exponents of fighting spirit, and time and again she embroiled Konta in drawn-out deuce games. But the 25-year-old displayed some brilliantly disciplined shot selection to remain immune to Putintseva's changes of pace and heavy topspin - in particular with some judicious forays to the net.
In total, Konta struck six aces and 36 winners past her opponent, often coming out on top of cat-and-mouse points and winning eight of the match's nine deuce games. It was a frustrating way to lose for Putintseva, who let all of her four break point chances go begging, and the Kazakh's racquet went flying on multiple occasions as she berated herself for her 32 unforced errors.
Though the second set was ultimately one-way traffic, Konta's growing confidence in her game didn't stop Putintseva attempting to set up roadblocks: with her rival serving at 4-0, 40-0, the 22-year-old fought back to drag yet another game to deuce. But that was the Kazakh's last stand.
On the fourth deuce, a ballboy was taken ill; Putintseva aided umpire Marija Cicak in bringing water to him and helping him off the court, but on resumption her fight appeared to have finally gone out of her and Konta reeled off six of the match's last seven points to book her spot in the third round.
"We play obviously so many times in really hot climates. I wouldn't be surprised if it's happened before, but I saw him after the match and I went off and he seemed to be doing better, so I think he's fine," Konta said about the incident.
The Brit will face the winner of Wednesday's match between No.9 seed Venus Williams and Lesia Tsurenko in the third round. Konta and Williams have played four times, with the Brit winning three of the meetings, and she also remains wary of the Ukrainian's ability to defeat top 10 opposition.
"I think whoever I'd be playing it will be a tough one. I know Lesia is a good player, beaten a lot of great players. She pushes a lot of highly ranked players," Konta said, referencing the five career top 10 victories. "Ability-wise, she's very strong and has been around for quite some time as well. Obviously, Venus, I have never actually played her on the clay, so that would be a different challenge and one that I would also look forward to. I think every time I have played her, it's been so close and so tough. Our last match in Miami, I think was one of my best performances of the year.
"I think either way, whoever I'm playing, it will be another opportunity for me to try and improve on this surface."