At least Johanna Konta was in good company. On a day when Jelena Ostapenko, the defending champion, and Venus Williams both went out on the first day of the French Open, the 27-year-old Briton’s Roland Garros woes continued when she was beaten 6-4, 6-3 by Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva, the world No 93.
While the surprise did not bear comparison in global terms with the losses of Ostapenko, who was beaten 7-5, 6-3 by Kateryna Kozlova, or Williams, who went down 6-4, 7-5 to China’s Wang Qiang, it underlined what a poor record Konta has on these courts in comparison with her results at other Grand Slam tournaments.
In her previous three appearances in the first round here Konta lost to Denisa Allertova (then the world No 88), Julia Goerges (world No 57) and Su-Wei Hsieh (world No 109). Konta admitted afterwards that her latest defeat was “probably the one I’m most disappointed with in terms of the level that I played”.
The world No 22 also reacted strongly when asked at her post-match press conference whether she went into tournaments like the French Open feeling pressure from people doubting her ability on clay.
“You guys can answer this for me,” Konta said. “Let’s say for a few years your pieces of writing have just been crap every time when you come into Roland Garros. Right? Just crap. And then your colleagues start to say: ‘You know, you really suck around that time.’ And that happens, you know, for a few years.
“How would you guys digest that, and would you feel any sort of lingering: ‘You know what, I want to prove these bastards wrong.’ But, you know, it’s just kind of lingering there.So it’s not something I would like to buy into and I don’t think I do. However, you guys don’t make it easy.”
Although Konta will not lose any ranking points as a result of her early exit, this had been an opportunity to make up some of the ground she has been losing in what has been a disappointing year overall.
Having begun the year as world No 9, she has been slipping down the rankings. Konta has yet to play in a semi-final in 2018 and will be defending 1,200 of her ranking points total of 2,050 in the upcoming five weeks of the grass-court season.
Konta had beaten Putintseva in their two previous meetings, but the 23-year-old from Kazakhstan is a feisty competitor who has a good record on clay. Making too many mistakes, Konta was particularly wasteful on her forehand, while Putintseva was more consistent. The Kazak hit only 13 winners to Konta’s 22, but the more telling statistic was her 14 unforced errors compared with Konta’s 32.
When the match started Court 1 was barely a third full and the opening games were played in near silence. Thunderstorms were forecast for later in the day but the match began in bright if muggy conditions, with the temperature touching 29C.
Everything appeared to be going smoothly for Konta when she won the first 10 points on her own serve, but at 2-3 and 30-0 she wobbled, hitting two double faults and missing with two loose forehands. A service winner saved the first break point, but two games later Putintseva had more chances and broke at the fourth time of asking when Konta missed a volley.
Konta responded well enough by breaking back immediately, cracking a forehand winner on her only break point of the opening set, but at 4-5 she was in trouble again. From 0-40 down the Briton saved two set points, but on the third she hit a forehand in the net going for what should have been a routine kill.
Konta drew first blood in the second set by breaking in the first game, but Putintseva broke back as her opponent followed a double fault with a backhand into the net. Two games later Putintseva broke again, defending brilliantly before beating Konta with a passing shot.
Putintseva served out for victory after just 84 minutes. She played one of her best points to go to match point with a winning volley before the contest ended in all too familiar fashion as Konta missed a backhand.
“The whole match really didn’t feel like a great match for me,” Konta said afterwards. “I never really quite found my rhythm. I never really quite found the way I wanted to play. Obviously some of that is to do with her. I think she played quite smart. Otherwise, I think I just had a bad match.”
Asked about her coach, Michael Joyce, who replaced Wim Fissette at the end of her best year in 2017, Konta said: “My relationship with Michael is going well. I think we’re doing good work.”
Ostapenko’s defeat means the only matches the 20-year-old Latvian has ever won here were when she took the title last year in one of the most remarkable results in the tournament’s history. The world No 5 never got going against Kozlova, a 24-year-old Ukrainian who had never previously beaten a top 30 player. The world No 66 lost in the first round on her only previous appearance here 12 months ago.
Williams’ loss to Wang, the world No 91, who had been beaten by the American at the same stage last year, was her first defeat in the first round here since 2001. The five-times Wimbledon champion, who has now lost in the first round of successive Grand Slam tournaments for the first time, gave curt replies at her post-match press conference.
Was she surprised at how well her opponent had played? “Everybody plays me well so that doesn’t surprise me at all,” Williams said. How would she recover for Wimbledon? “Nobody plans for this.” Did she have any plans to play any warm-up tournaments before Wimbledon? “Not really.” Meanwhile Sloane Stephens, the US Open champion, beat the Dutchwoman Arantxa Rus 6-2, 6-0, while Elina Svitolina recovered from a 5-1 deficit in the first set to beat Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic 7-5, 6-3.