Johanna Konta rise continues, joins Murray in Australian Open quarters

Johanna Konta becomes the first British woman to reach a Grand Slam quarter-final for 32 years at the Australian Open

The rise and rise of British No1 and world No47 continued with yet another ground-breaking victory for Johanna Konta at the Australian Open on Monday evening.

The tall, athletic and elegant Briton, playing in her first main draw in Melbourne, had already become the first British woman to make the fourth-round here in 32 years, but has now gone one step further. And she is not just the first to make the quarter-finals of the Australian Open since Jo Durie in 1983, but is into her own first ever Major quarter-final having not so much as made the third round of qualifying ‘Down Under’ before.

And to give some context to how much water has passed under the tennis bridge since Durie achieved the same, the Australian Open back then was played at the end of the year not the beginning, was played on grass, and the women played a 64-name draw.

Konta, then, has played one more match than the No8 seed Durie did in Kooyong that December and, as an unseeded player, has beaten two seeds in the process, first No8 Venus Williams, and today No21 seed Ekaterina Makarova.

Just a year ago, Konta was 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 turning the trajectory upwards as soon as she hit home turf.

She reached the quarters of her home-town Eastbourne event still ranked 146, and beat then world No8 Makarova and No20 Garbine Muguruza, who would go on the reach the Wimbledon final a fortnight later.

Konta 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—and better was to come.

At the Wuhan Premier, she beat No2 Simona Halep as well as Victoria Azarenka to set up a first meet with Williams in the quarters—by now on 21 wins from 22—and despite the loss, she began this year’s Australia campaign 100 places higher.

And such has been her new profile in Australia—the country of her birth even though her family left many years ago—and the level of opponents she has played, that Konta worked her way through each of Melbourne’s big show courts, and looked equally at home in all of them.

Against the difficult Makarova, though, she would be taken to three sets for the first time in long, demanding and seesawing battle between the right-handed Konta and the more experienced left-hander from Russia. Makarova had not only reached the quarters in Melbourne in three of the last four years but was a semi-finalist last year.

It was Konta who took the first advantage with a break in the third game and a hold for 3-1. Makarova had to fight off more break points in a lengthy fifth game but eventually held, and broke back for 3-3. Two double faults by Konta to open and close the 10th game, and Makarova broke for the set, 6-4.

In the second set, a break in the first game was enough for Konta, who regained her formidable baseline rhythm, though her serving was still not up to the level that she would expect. Even so, after an hour and three-quarters of punishing, long games, she levelled the match, 6-4.

After a lengthy break between sets, Makarova then took a long medical time out after winning the opening game of the third for treatment to blisters. It seemed to disrupt Konta’s rhythm, but the Briton held off a break point for 1-1.

Almost every game now demanded and got huge effort from both women, with many games going to deuce. Konta earned the chance to break again in the seventh, but the leftie, wide-swinging serve of the Russian dragged Konta wide for the error, and she held.

Eventually, the Briton did get the break with a string of impressive strikes, first a forehand down-the-line running pass, then a backhand down-the-line winner. A return of serve to Makarova’s feet and she pushed through to leave herself serving for the match.

The Russian rose to the challenge once again, stepping inside the baseline to rush Konta and break back. With three hours on the clock, they stood at 6-6, and Konta attacked once more to break, and this time she made no mistake with her cleanest serving game of the match, 8-6.

Asked how she had survived the three hours, she grinned and corrected:
“Three hours and four minutes: Trust me, those four minutes counted!”

She added, with emotion and not a little exhaustion: “Goodness gracious: you guys made so much noise I felt like the stadium was full. I don’t think you realise how much that supports us, and it’s one of the reasons I’m here…”

The mental calm and resolve that has transformed Konta from a talented and physically fine-tuned player into a winner was clear to see yet again. She has credited her sports psychologist with much of her recent improvement, and she referred to that mental resolve once more: “Mentally, emotionally, physically, I definitely left it all out here on court… It’s just keeping your mind as quiet as possible—the less thoughts the better.”

She admitted to being tired when she came off court, but her solution, she said, was straightforward: “I’ll just eat, sleep, eat, sleep, and then repeat” in readiness for her next match.

That will be against Shuai Zhang, who came back to beat an injured Madison Keys, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3. And if this has been a ground-breaking tournament for Konta, it is proving to be even more of a fairytale for Zhang: the Chinese woman was close to retiring at the end of last year after failing to win a first-round Major match in 14 attempts.

For now, though, Konta could not stop smiling—the default setting for this sunny Brit. And she and GB have much to smile about. For the first time in 39 years, there will be both a male and female Briton in the last eight of Grand Slam, for shortly after Konta’s win, Andy Murray joined her with a 6-4, 6-4, 7-6 (7-4) win over No16 seed Bernard Tomic.

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