LONDON, Great Britain - No.22 seed Johanna Konta made a solid start to her Wimbledon campaign, coming through a big-serving affair over Natalia Vikhlyantseva 7-5, 7-6(7) in one hour and 47 minutes.
Both players have pedigree on grass, with the two of the British No.1's six finals coming on the surface (Nottingham 2017 and 2018) and Vikhlyantseva's career-best result being a run to the 's-Hertogenbosch final last year. In their first career meeting, the reasons swiftly became apparent as both players took full advantage of the slick lawns to dominate when they stepped up to the baseline.
"She has a big game," observed Konta. "When someone serves well, when someone has a good first strike, that makes it quite tricky out there. She made me work for it very hard. It was a great match for me to battle through and fight through until literally the very last point."
Though there would be occasional flashes of inspiration from both, such as Konta's forehand improvisation to dispose of an awkwardly mishit return, the meat and potatoes of the match would be the serve. In the opening set, Konta would win 86% of her first serve points, her Russian opponent only slightly behind on 81%; through the first six games, the returner would garner only six points, and as both players took turns matching each other for smooth holds, the first 10 games saw just one break point come into view.
That would be against the Vikhlyantseva serve in the sixth game, and though the 21-year-old would save it and hold with her best three points of the match - two stunning forehand winners, one down the line and one crosscourt, and a neat high volley - it was an also an indication that her delivery could be slightly more vulnerable. So it proved at 5-5, as Konta pounced with a brace of aggressive returns and Vikhlyantseva responded with her fourth double fault. What had been an evenly contested set ended with the more experienced player running away with it as last year's semifinalist swept 12 of the last 13 points to move into the lead.
The WTA World No.104 has fallen back this year from the career high of No.54 she set last October - though her overall record in 2018 is an even 16-16, she is just 4-12 in WTA main draw matches - and she was unable to recover from the sudden momentum shift in time for the second set, offering up more loose groundstroke errors to drop serve again immediately.
The sixth game saw Vikhlyantseva landing deep returns to force a rare deuce - but with a chance to regain a foothold in extended rallies, it was the Russian backhand that broke down first. As if to rub it in, Konta would snuff out the opportunity by holding with an excellent backhand winner of her own.
But Vikhlyantseva, staring down the barrel of a 2-5 double break deficit, again came up with some brilliant forehands to stave off danger.
As is so often the case, a missed opportunity on return was followed by a wobble on serve. Having held without so much as facing a break point for nine service games, the Briton was broken to 30 - and, amidst a spate of poorly-executed Konta dropshots, Vikhlyantseva reeled off three consecutive games to carve out two unexpected set points at 5-4.
Just in time, Konta's first serve would come to the rescue to save both, setting the stage for a dramatic tiebreak that featured multiple net cords, Hawkeye challenges and double faults from both. The 2017 Miami champion sailed into a 6-2 lead, with a magnificent passage of play including her best two defensive points of the day - but it would take five match points to finally finish off the battling Vikhlyantseva, Konta ultimately sealing the deal with a firmly struck volley.
It was this section of the match that Konta was most proud of afterwards. "It would have been easy to get discouraged when I got broken after coming so close to breaking her again at 4-2," she said. "I think the way I competed and the way I just kept going after every single point, I think I can take a lot from that - as well as not always coming through at some points."
To the 27-year-old, there is as much to learn from more arduous tests such as this one as from her easier matches. "The matches where things are a lot more straightforward for you, obviously you take the good things from that, maybe the level you played," she explained. "But in terms of the way you competed out there, these matches ask a lot more of you."
As for the drawn-out conclusion to the match, Konta credited Vikhlyantseva. "I think my opponent also has a say in how those match points go," she responded.
In the second round, the two-time Nottingham runner-up will face former Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova after the Slovak eliminated Alizé Cornet, 7-6(3), 6-1. "She's probably one of the best competitors on tour, has been for quite some time," said Konta of her next opponent, against whom she leads the head-to-head 2-1. "She's a feisty player. I think it will be a great test for me to keep a good focus on controlling what I can, accept that she's going to fight her way into some points and really stay there until the very end."