As someone whose career takes her to sun-kissed destinations every week, British No 1 Johanna Konta loves the rain and grey skies of London. When she looks out the window and sees a lowering cloud bank, she knows she that she must be at home.
On Thursday, though, Konta will need to draw strength from her Australian upbringing. One of Melbourne’s heatwaves is forecast to descend, pushing temperatures up to 37C.
“It’s not easy to play in the heat but I’ve always enjoyed it,” said Konta, who cruised into the second round with a 6-3, 6-1 win over Madison Brengle. “Partly because when I was a young girl I spent time here, so I have memories of those conditions. I would rather play in the hot than the cold.”
Konta has form in these sorts of encounters. In New York four years ago, she beat Garbine Muguruza in scorching conditions that saw one local player carted off in a wheelchair with bags of ice stuffed in his clothing. As the court approached melting point, Konta’s 3hr 23min win broke the record for the longest women’s match ever played at the US Open.
Thursday’s opponent, Bernarda Pera, cannot match the renown of a Wimbledon winner like Muguruza, being a young American in her first grand slam. But that does not mean that Konta should relax.
“Sometimes the body is not completely co-operating,” Konta said, “and it’s saying, ‘Listen, I’m not a fan of this today, I don’t want to do this’. So you try to adapt and make sure you do everything you can: hydrating well, staying cool at the change of ends, all the little things. It’s also about accepting that it’s going to feel uncomfortable. You know that it’s feeling uncomfortable for everybody.”
Results in the heat can be frighteningly unpredictable. One year on from the Muguruza win, Konta suffered a different outcome on the other side of Flushing Meadows, collapsing during her second-round match against Tsvetana Pironkova.
At first, she seemed to have suffered a full-body cramp – a horribly painful experience that invariably forces a retirement. But after extensive medical attention, and a lengthy bathroom break, she came back to win in three sets. “I don’t know if anyone’s had a panic attack,” she said afterwards, “but that’s basically what it felt like.”
The Australian Open uses a heat rule to decide whether conditions are suitable for play, but it seems unlikely that there will be any suspensions this week. In 2014, play continued in such extreme temperatures that one player – Frank Dancevic – started to hallucinate and another – Ivan Dodig – said that he had feared for his life.
A forest fire of outrage erupted among the players that year. And the flames were fanned by some offhand comments from Dr Tim Wood, the tournament’s official doctor, who told the BBC: “Man is well adapted to exercising in the heat. We evolved on the high plains of Africa chasing antelope for eight hours under these conditions.”
Health scares may or may not arise in Melbourne the coming days, but they are a constant threat to Pera, a Croatian-born American, who has to carry an EpiPen everywhere because of food allergies.
“I’m allergic to chicken, seafood and turkey,” said Pera. “I have only had to use the EpiPen [which delivers a shot of adrenalin] once – in Prague last year. I had to spend the night in hospital. I couldn’t feel my hands or my legs. I had cramps everywhere and I couldn’t breathe.”
Such a delicate constitution must make the travelling life more difficult, especially given Pera’s normal schedule of second-tier tournaments. At 23, she is relatively old to be making her grand-slam debut. But then Konta was 24 before she cracked the top 100, a late-blooming story that ought to give Pera inspiration. “I know what she looks like,” said Konta, “because she was around on the Challenger circuit when I was there.”
Meanwhile, Heather Watson, the British No 2, was unable to make it three out of three for the home contingent in the first round here. Drawn against the fleet-footed Yulia Putintseva, Watson found herself unable to break down her opponent’s defence, and eventually lost 7-5, 7-6.
At one point, Watson could be heard berating herself with the words: “I’m just rallying all day long and it’s getting me nowhere.” She tried to ramp up the aggression in the second set, and led 4-1 at one point, but the relentless Putintseva reeled her in, eventually claiming victory in 2hr 16min.
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