Johanna Konta continues to ‘live the dream’ after reaching Australian Open semi-finals
Johanna Konta continues her remarkable run with a 6-4 6-1 win over China's Zhang Shuai to reach the Australian Open last four
Make no mistake. Johanna Konta, ranked 47 and destined to break into the top 30 in the post-Australian Open rankings, has always had the talent and athleticism to make it big in tennis.
The last piece of the puzzle, though, was the belief that she could beat the best, and with the help of a mental coach since late 2014, the picture seems complete.
Little more than a year on, Konta has reached her first Grand Slam semi-final, the first British woman to do so since 1977, with victory over Shuai Zhang, 6-4, 6-1.
It so happens that Konta’s first match against Zhang also brought with it a milestone. The Briton played the Chinese woman in the final round of qualifying at the 2012 US Open, and a tough three-set victory took her into the main draw of a Grand Slam by right—she had been given a wild card for Wimbledon—for the first time.
It so happens, too, that this correspondent watched her do it: “[Konta] is currently ranked just outside the top 200… but judging from her performance in New York, there is plenty more to come from the young woman who stands just shy of 6ft. There are times, in fact, when she looks and plays like Andrea Petkovic: She has an attacking style, strong ground strokes and an eagerness to take control of rallies that, on occasion, saw her over-hitting… She recovered, though, with impressive focus and that, as much as her firepower, should take her far in the coming year or so… Stay tuned to the newest Brit on the block.”
Konta went on to win her first Grand Slam match by beating Timea Babos, but further main-draw Major wins were hard to come by, again until New York—last year.
Of course, her rise through 2015, with the help of Juan Coto and a fresh training set-up in Spain, has been rehearsed many times this week as first she beat No8 seed Venus Williams in Round 1, then made a gutsy three-set comeback against No21 seed Ekaterina Makarova, and now played for place in the semis.
For just a year ago, Konta was ranked 147, playing the ITF circuit, failing to make it past the qualifying until the French Open—where she lost in the first round.
Hitting home grass, though, brought the long-awaited turning point: the quarters of her home-town Eastbourne event via wins over Makarova and Garbine Muguruza, then two ITF titles on her way to the US Open and a truly memorable week that began in qualifying, took in victories over Muguruza and Petkovic, and ended on Arthur Ashe playing world No4 Petra Kvitova.
By the end of the season, she had also beaten Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka at the Wuhan Premier, and had gained 100 ranking places in a year.
Against Zhang this time, the tennis and the score showed just how far Konta has come since that first match.
The Briton held her opening serve with an ace, worked a break point in the third game with a forehand winner, and held for 3-1 with another winner.
A love hold and it was 4-2, and Zhang continued to find it hard to live with Konta’s pace and aggressive ball-striking to both wings. Another forehand winner, and Konta broke for 5-2, but then an eight-minute battle ended with Zhang breaking back, and the Chinese held for 4-5. Konta faced break point again, as errors totted up, but she eventually took the set with a two big serves.
The second set raced by, Konta now upping the pace and accuracy: A forehand winner brought up break point, a backhand winner converted it. Just as quickly, she was broken back, but broke again, saved break point in sixth game, and surged to a 6-1 victory when Zhang double faulted on match point.
So after failing to qualify for the Australian Open for the last three years, Konta has broken new personal ground, and in typically attacking style: 28 winners, eight from nine winning net plays and seven aces.
She afterwards explained what had brought this reversal of fortune in the country where she was born 24 years ago.
“It really comes down to a number of things. I think really understanding why I was playing the sport and really finding my enjoyment within the sport, really separating that enjoyment from results is a huge factor. If you win and die with your wins and losses, it’s an incredibly tough lifestyle to live.”
She then spoke of the personal support underpinning her success: “I’m incredibly humble and grateful for the position that I’m in. Trust me, I understand how much this means to my family, to the people that have stuck by me through years and years and years of ups and downs. But in terms of what it means to me, I’m just so happy that I’m enjoying what I’m doing. That is me living my dream. When I was a little girl I dreamt of winning Grand Slams and being No1. That dream stays the same.”
The stakes now become higher, in the shape of the formidable left-handed No7 seed Angelique Kerber, who overturned the result of the Brisbane final a fortnight ago, beating in-form Victoria Azarenka, 6-3, 7-5.
Kerber had not beaten the No14 seed in six previous meetings, and won only four games in that recent final, but she was all over the former Australian champion from the get-go, racing to a 4-0 lead.
Gradually, Azarenka, who had lost only 11 games in her first four matches here, lifted her level to take 11 of 13 points and regain one break, but Kerber survived five deuces and two break points in an eight-minute eighth game to go 5-3 and broke for the set.
Azarenka made a strong come-back in the second, breaking in the first game and again in seventh to serve for the set, and she went 40-0 up—only to lose five straight points, the last with a double fault. From there, Kerber went on the rampage to win five games and the match, and reach her first Australian semi-final.
Konta has never played Kerber before, and knows she is in for her biggest test of the tournament so far: “It will be my first match against her. She’s top 10 and an incredibly decorated, successful competitor and player. I’m just going to go out there, bring to the court what I can, try my best, hopefully give the crowd a great match, and we’ll see how it goes.”
It will be a quick turnaround for the Briton: the match is tomorrow afternoon, scheduled at around 4am in the UK.