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British challenger Konta hones mental mettle to down Osaka

By Melanie Burton

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - The last time Johanna Konta faced Naomi Osaka in qualifying for the 2015 U.S. Open, the Briton had just scraped into the top 100 and her then 16-year-old opponent was more than a hundred places further back in the rankings.

Eighteen months on, and although the result was similar - Konta prevailing in two sets - the context was transformed with two rising stars of the game opening the day on Rod Laver Arena in the second round of the Australian Open.

While the obvious talent Haitian-Japanese Osaka showed on court indicates that more experience can only keep her on the rise from her current ranking of number 48 in the world, Konta is on a sharper trajectory.

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The 25-year-old ninth seed has reaped the rewards of a serious effort to double down on her mental game and is looking to back up a run to the semi-finals in Melbourne last year by going deep again this year.

"I think both of us have come a long way since the last time we played," an effervescent Konta told reporters after her 6-4 6-2 victory.

"Very happy to have come through that. I knew going into the match I had played her once previously, and we had two close sets. She's obviously a great server and a big ball striker.

"I was definitely keen on making my stamp in the match, and I feel like I managed to do that as the match went on."

Konta's clear focus on process bears the hallmarks of mind coach Juan Coto, who died suddenly late last year, after two years of helping her sharpen her mental game. Konta has said he is still "very much a part" of all she does.

That was evident in her sound victory over her potentially tricky opponent in one hour and nine minutes, bashing out nine aces and winning a remarkable 89 percent of points on her first serve.

Konta is building on a roaring start to the year, with last week's warm-up win in Sydney, the city of her birth.

She is now facing a third round showdown with 17th seed Caroline Wozniacki with the imposing shadow of six-times champion Serena Williams potentially looming in the quarter-finals.

Konta has also to contend with the pressure of being Britain's brightest chance for a first women's singles grand slam title in 40 years.

"I believe that if I continue to keep my priorities straight, really take care of the work, of my body, then I will continuously be able to have the opportunity to improve, to experience more matches, more situations," she said.

"And I think in turn, a lot of it is time."

True to the philosophy of the process-oriented athlete, Konta suggested that she had plenty of work to do before her meeting with former world number one Wozniacki.

"I'm looking forward to being out on court, competing, and ultimately I'm just trying to make my stay here in Melbourne as long as possible," she said.

(Editing by Sudipto Ganguly)

 
 
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