Johanna Konta beats Venus Williams to claim first title in Stanford

Johanna Konta beat seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams to win her first WTA title in Stanford

It seems but a moment ago that Briton Johanna Konta was still outside the top 100, needing a wild card to enter Wimbledon’s main draw, then playing—and winning—ITF tournaments to push up her ranking.

Yet the signs were already there during 2015: Konta thrilled her home Eastbourne crowd with a win over two top-20 players, including the woman who would reach the final of Wimbledon a fortnight later, Garbine Mugurza.

Less than a year ago, she raced her way through the US Open qualifying and two more top-20 players to reach her first Grand Slam fourth round.

And then, up to 66 in the rankings, she stood out against one of the toughest possible draws at the Wuhan Open, a draw topped by then No2 Simona Halep and containing two former No1s and Grand Slam champions, Victoria Azarenka and Venus Williams.

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

On her way to the quarter-finals in Wuhan, Konta had picked up 21 wins from 22 matches, and was already guaranteed to break the top 50. But the mighty Williams, 35 years old, and back in fine physical shape despite her battles with the debilitating Sjögren’s Syndrome, stood in the way of a semi-final place.

Konta confessed to BBC Sport 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 sharpened by the much-publicised help of a sports psychologist, was beginning to characterise her attacking, confident tennis. She lost only narrowly, 7-5 in the third set.

But before you could say ‘top 30’, she was on the cusp of just that after a breakthrough semi run at the Australian Open. And Konta’s run in Melbourne began with none other than revenge over No8 seed Williams, 6-4, 6-2.

A year on, Konta is no longer worried about qualifying rounds or wild cards. As a Grand Slam seed herself, she now shares the ‘special’ locker rooms at Roland Garros and Wimbledon with the elite. She is also at a career-high No18 and matching the achievements of previous great British players such as Sue Barker and Virginia Wade.

Indeed with her latest ‘first’, Konta was again emulating those very Brits. In reaching her first final at the prestigious Premier tournament in Stanford this week, she became the first Briton to do so since Wade in 1981. The last to win the title? Barker beat Wade in 1977.

And standing between Konta and her first title was Williams, who herself was attempting to break new ground.

The extraordinary Williams, now age 36, aimed to win Stanford for the third time, 16 years after her first win. Should Williams do so, she would also set a new Open era record for a span between titles at one tournament, a record held by the equally extraordinary Martina Navratilova.

What’s more, no player in the Open era had won a tournament 22 years after making her debut there: Williams first played Stanford as a 14-year-old wildcard in 1994.

The conditions in Stanford were punishing: high temperatures and high humidity. But that did not prevent an enthralled crowd from soaking it all up through a two-hour and 20 minute battle.

The first set brought first a break to Konta, 5-3, then a break back to Williams, 5-5, and another break, this time consolidated to love, by Konta, 7-5. The Briton was one step nearer that title.

It looked as though Konta would run away with the second set when she broke to love in the third game and broke again for 4-1. But Williams is not a 49-title-winning champion for nothing.

The Briton wavered, perhaps thinking too soon about the significance of what she was about to do. Williams began to unleash some huge forehands, taking on the role of aggressor so recently held by Konta, and pinned back the Briton to break back twice. She held serve to lead, 5-4.

Konta held off break points in the 10th game, with Williams chasing down a drop-shot for a winner as though she was the younger player on the court. But in the 12th game, two errors at the net handed Williams the break and the set, 7-5.

The pro-Williams crowd was on its feet, and Konta beat a retreat for a comfort break. She needed to regroup and put the memory of 20 errors in the set behind her. She did just that.

Back in the aggressor’s role, she forced an immediate break point, and though she did not convert, she drew a double fault on break point in the third game. With the clock now ticking past two hours, Konta broke again, but had to try and serve out the match into the sun.

If proof were needed of her point-by-point mentality these days, she now showed it in spades. An awful drop shot brought up one break point. She aced to save a second break point, saw two match points comes and go, and she faced yet another break point before finally serving it out, 6-2.

A measure of Konta’s focus was written in the stats: 12 aces, 42 winners, and eight break points saved from 12 faced. It all earned her a first title, a Premier at that, and a new career high of No14.

Konta has an easy charm, and it drew cheers even from the disappointed American crowd as she said: “First of all I know it’s not the winner you wanted, but thank you so much for not just supporting me through the week but also for all the players all week. And thank you Venus. If I could be as gracious a player on and off court as you are, I’d be very happy.”

Then be very happy, Johanna Konta.

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