Wuhan Open: Konta’s dream run ended by Venus Williams – and a single point

Johanna Konta is beaten 6-4 3-6 7-5 by Venus Williams in the quarter-finals of the Wuhan Open in China

With 15 of the top 20 women in the world competing in the WTA Premier event in Wuhan this week, there were never going to be any easy routes through the draw.

But Briton Johanna Konta surely picked one of the toughest quarters, the one topped by world No2 Simona Halep, and that contained two former No1s and Grand Slam champions, Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams among its unseeded players.

That Konta ended up facing all three of those women, back-to-back-to-back, having already beaten the powerful No13 seed Andrea Petkovic—and after playing two qualifying rounds—made her run here the stand-out of the tournament.

It was becoming, too, the stand-out performance of Konta’s career, which in the context of her last six month was saying something. A quarter-final run in home-town Eastbourne brought wins over Ekaterina Makarova and Garbine Muguruza, which was backed up by two winning runs at ITF level in Canada and then a breakthrough Grand Slam fourth-round run at the US Open via seven matches and wins over Muguruza and Petkovic.

Now in the quarter-finals of Wuhan, she had picked up 21 wins from 22 matches, and was already guaranteed to break the top 50 after starting the year at 146.

But the mighty Venus Williams, 35 years old, still with a zest for competition, and in fine physical shape despite her battles with the debilitating Sjögren’s Syndrome, stood in the way of a semi-final place.

The qualifier confessed to BBCSport.com that it was “a bit of a childhood dream—I grew up watching her play. But as a competitor, I’m just really looking forward to the challenge. She’s a multi Grand Slam champion for a reason.”

And that fighting spirit of Konta, based on great athleticism, and now sharpened by the much-publicised help of a sports psychologist, has characterised her attacking, confident tennis in recent months. She appeared entirely unfazed when 1-5 down against Halep, fighting back to win six games in a row.

She opened against Williams with all that confidence in place, too, firing a forehand winner on the first point, and pressing Williams through four break points and seven minutes, but was unable to break. Instead, it was the American who got the first break, standing in to take her returns aggressively, and attacking the net to finish it off, 2-0.

But Konta kept to the job in hand, also attacked the serve, and two blistering forehands winners earned her the break back.

Williams, though, looked powerful, broke again, and this time fended off another break chance from Konta for 4-1. She served for the match at 5-3, only for Konta to break again, but a double-fault and a backhand hit wide, and Williams broke for the set, 6-4.

This had been an intense 48 minutes, both women going after the ball, striking clean and deep, but Williams’ error level was just a bit lower, 13 to 16.

Now came a switch in momentum, with Konta looking the sharper and Williams’ level dropping a fraction. Too many missed first serves from the American and Konta rose to the challenge, broke in fifth, and produced a great forehand return of serve to break again for the set, 6-3.

Konta was on a roll, but would surely live to regret a missed break chance in the second game. She held off some aggressive tennis from Williams in third game and once more went toe-to-toe from the baseline in some exhilarating rallies. The Briton’s backhands eventually punched a hole for the break, 3-1, only for Williams to break back on the dot of two hours.

The match was finely balanced until Williams double faulted, and Konta drew a backhand error with a terrific return of serve. It got the break, and Konta stepped up to serve for the math, 5-3. But the usual calm demeanour of Williams transformed into fist-pumping, court-pounding determination—quite simply, she refused to lose. She hammered balls through the court to break, held a tense service game and forced one more break.

Now it was her turn to serve for the match, and Konta almost thwarted her again, as they stood at 40 points apiece in the set: Konta battled to three break points and Williams battled to save them.

Right to the last point, both women laid it all on the line, but after 160 minutes of compelling tennis, it was Williams who survived by just one point in the 213 played: 7-5.

Williams thanked the crowd, whose enthusiasm may have interrupted rallies but was clearly behind the only remaining Grand Slam champion in the draw.

“I can’t believe I’m standing here as the winner. Jo played so well, she’s had such a great summer, and beaten so many players this tournament. It seemed like I was finished, but I felt the energy of the crowd behind me. This is where I want to be, playing for a place in the final.”

And as luck would have it, Williams now has the chance to avenge her sister’s loss at the US Open by taking on another woman enjoying an Indian summer, Roberta Vinci, who reached the final in New York in the upset of the tournament.

Vinci backed up an impressive win over Petra Kvitova with defeat of the No8 seed, Karoline Pliskova, and will pose a very different problem for Williams in the semis.

In the bottom half of the draw, Muguruza continued her own surge up the rankings by backing up her win over Ana Ivanovic with victory over Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 6-2 6-2, in just 72 minutes. The only thing that can now stop her breaking into the top five is the title for Angelique Kerber, who has yet to play a seed in Wuhan.

For Konta, though, the dream run has been ended by the dream opponent, but this is surely just one more step to greater runs and greater wins for the top-ranked Briton.

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