Australian Open 2016: Johanna Konta downs Venus Williams, and Halep humbled
Johanna Konta is through to the second round of the Australian Open after an impressive victory over Venus Williams
The last time, the only time, British No1 Johanna Konta had played one of her idols, seven-time Grand Slam champion and former No1 Venus Williams, she had just enjoyed the best season of her tennis career.
2015 started with the tall, powerful young woman from Eastbourne ranked 147, playing the ITF circuit, failing to make it past the qualifying rounds until the French Open—she lost her very first main-draw match at Roland Garros—before putting a spring in the step of every British tennis fan when she hit the grass.
Konta reached the quarters of her home-town event still ranked 146, and beat first world No8 Ekaterina Makarova and then No20 Garbine Muguruza, who would go on the reach the Wimbledon final a fortnight later.
She boosted her form and ranking a little more with two ITF titles before making the big time at the US Open… a truly memorable week that began in qualifying and ended in an Arthur Ashe night session playing world No4 Petra Kvitova. She lost that one, 7-5, 6-3, to end a 16-match-winning streak, but along the way had claimed Muguruza again—and better was to come.
At the Wuhan Premier, she beat No2 Simona Halep as well as Victoria Azarenka to set up that first meet with Williams in the quarters—by now on 21 wins from 22 matches and guaranteed to be 100 places higher than at the start of the year.
She confessed to BBCSport.com at the time that this 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.”
And that fighting spirit of Konta, based on great athleticism, and sharpened by the much-publicised help of a sports psychologist, has characterised her attacking, confident tennis of recent months. In that first meeting, she served for the match 5-3 in the third, only for Williams to wrestle the victory, 7-5.
Now, in her first Australian main-draw, Konta was after her first win of the season, and centre stage on Rod Laver arena, in the heat of the afternoon.
But if she felt any pressure, if she felt any nerves, the Briton did not show it. She broke in the third game, and then again to take a 5-2 lead, serving it out 6-4 after Williams regained one break.
The American did not look her best, and though her serve was hitting the box, it lacked real bite. And once into rallies, the Briton had all the intensity and pace. Konta broke immediately and raced to a 5-0 lead before Williams broke to get on the board. Konta faced two more break points but served out an impressive victory in just 78 minutes, 6-2.
Konta has a winning personality and smile, and had clearly won over the crowd in the country where she was born, but she is also charmingly modest: “When the draw came out, I just thought, OK, I hope to stay out there more than an hour at least! [But] sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Today, I won!”
She next plays the 83-ranked Zheng Saisai.
There was no getting away from it: the overwhelming favourite in the headliner match on Margaret Court was World No2 Halep, who has been a stalwart of the top rankings since her breakthrough six-title season in 2013.
Halep has also been a quarter-finalist at the Australian Open for the last two years, and she played a woman, in No132 Shuai Zhang, whose results had see-sawed so mercilessly since she reached a high of 30 in 2014 that she had considered retirement at the end of last season after failing to win a single Grand Slam match in seven years of trying.
Yet in the upset of the tournament so far, David beat Goliath—and Zhang did not just beat Halep but did so in spectacular style, on the front foot, in 78 minutes, 6-4, 6-3: 31 winners to 24 errors, 10/12 net points to her name, and a date with Alize Cornet in Round 2.
The Chinese woman turns 27 on the day of her second ever Grand Slam match, a birthday present and a half, but for now, she gave way to a truly emotional moment: She could not hold back the tears as the full arena cheered and cheered.
Eventually she managed a few words, with the look of a rabbit caught in the headlights of her own shock:
“I am excited about today, I played so well. I think in my life, the best tennis… I want to say thank you to my parents, my coach. Thanks you everybody for supporting me.”
She was not the only one to well up, especially when she concluded: “I want to show how good I am.”
The fans who stayed late on Rod Laver saw just how good the two-time former champion Viktoria Azarenka was. Currently seeded just 14, though that is a big rise after coping with recurrent injuries through the last couple of seasons, she showed she is back to being a serious contender for the title.
She was ruthless and relentless in making the 43-ranked Alison Van Uytvanck look less than ordinary with a blistering display of baseline hitting: It took 53 minutes to leave the German woman with the humiliating 6-0, 6-0 scoreline.
Azarenka dropped just five points on serve, but insisted she was far from perfection: “I don’t think I’m looking for perfection. I’m looking for effort. I’m looking for focus. I like that I was very composed today from first point to the last point. Like it didn’t matter what the score was, I was there on every point.”
She now plays No54 Danka Kovinic: Few will envy the Montenegran.
Seeds marching onward
Garbine Muguruza  beat Anett Kontaveit, 6-0, 6-3
Angelique Kerber  beat Misaki Doi, 6-7(4), 7-6(6), 6-3, saving match point Karolina Pliskova  beat Kimberly Birrell, 6-4, 6-4
Timea Bacsinszky  beat Katerina Siniakova, 6-3, 7-5 Madison Keys  beat Zarina Diyas, 7-6(5), 6-1 Elina Svitolina  beat Victoria Duval, 6-2, 6-3 Jelena Jankovic  beat Polona Hercog, 6-3, 6-3 Ana Ivanovic  beat Tammi Patterson, 6-2, 6-3 Ekaterina Makarova  beat Maddison Inglis, 6-3, 6-0
Sabine Lisicki  beat Petra Cetkovska, 6-4, 6-4
In addition to Halep and Williams, Lesia Tsurenko  lost to Varvara Lepchenko, 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-3 Irina-Camelia Begu  lost to Johanna Larsson, 6-3, 6-2