Johanna Konta chasing down WTA finals, but faces in-form Keys in Beijing

Britain's in-form Johanna Konta is chasing down a place in the season-ending 21016 WTA Finals in Singapore

It is 33 years since a British woman last broke into the top 10. Back then, at the end of 1983, it was Jo Durie, who ended the year at No6 after a storming return to the WTA tour following back surgery and an eight-month absence.

During that year, Durie reached the semis, unseeded, at the French Open, then made the semis at the US Open as well, and ended the year with a quarter-final finish in Australia. That took her into the elite band that would, a couple of months later, play the Virginia Slims WTA Championships as the No5 seed.

Now, for the first time, Johanna Konta is on the cusp of matching two of those Durie milestones. She has already become the first British woman since Durie to reach the semis of a Grand Slam, in Australia this year.

And after a quarter-final finish in Wuhan last week, the 25-year-old has now reached the semi-finals of one of the biggest and most lucrative events in the women’s calendar, the Beijing Premier Mandatory.

If she reaches the final tomorrow, she will break the top 10 when the new rankings are released on Monday. If she wins the title, she moves directly into contention for a place at the WTA Finals in Singapore in three weeks’ time—a destination reserved only for the elite eight in the rankings.

She has done it in some style, too. Konta’s first opponent was one of the higher unseeded women in the draw, No30 Anastasija Sevastova: She dropped just two games. Then came a higher-ranked non-seed, Timea Babos: Konta got it done in straight sets.

Next up was No6, Karolina Pliskova, who has already qualified for the WTA Finals, was finalist at the US Open, and had beaten Konta in all five previous matches. Konta knuckled down when it looked as though Pliskova would grab the win again to take victory in a final-set tie-breaker. And that took the Briton to a 9-6 record against top-10 players.

Her latest match was her third this year against the fast-rising Shuai Zhang, who started the year ranked 139 and arrived at this meeting on her home court with a home crowd as No36. She had already beaten Sam Stosur and No4 seed Simona Halep, and was playing some of the best tennis of her career.

It had been Konta herself who halted Zhang’s break-through run to the quarters of the Australian Open in January, and the Briton beat her again in Wuhan last week. For it was little more than a year ago that Konta, too, was barely inside the top 100, and she only entered the top 50 at the start of 2016.

But it was in Asia this time last year that she consolidated her career-boosting run through qualifying to the fourth round of the US Open. In Wuhan, she entered via qualifying to make the quarters via Victoria Azarenka and Halep before falling to the eventual champion. She did not play in Beijing, though, so this year has been her very first time at this make-or-break Premier, and she has risen to the occasion as she did in winning her first title earlier this summer at the Stanford Premier.

In truth, the start of her campaign for a semi-final place started badly: Zhang broke her twice to take a 4-0 lead. But then the big, penetrating and accurate hitting of the Briton kicked in, and silenced a vocal crowd that was, not surprisingly, in full voice for Zhang and against Konta.

Even the biased Beijing faithful, though, could not have anticipated that Konta would reel off 12 straight games to win the match, 6-4, 6-0.

She served out the first set to love, but those final four points edged her just four points ahead of Zhang. Come the second set, and Zhang managed only 11 more points in the match.

Konta’s next opponent could not have taken a more different path. Madison Keys, ranked No9 and in need of just one more win to seal her place at the WTA Finals for the first time, was one half of a superb battle against No11 Petra Kvitova, in a two-hour 42 minute feast of power hitting from both women.

Just how close the match was is reflected in the final tally: 117 points each. But the last one, in a final-set tie-break, belonged to Keys.

The young American had led by a set and a break before Kvitova fought back, and may rue not closing things out in the second set when she return to court tomorrow afternoon. However all five of her previous matches against Kvitova had been tough, not least their three-set contest for the bronze medal in Rio, which Kvitova won.

The Czech also won the Wuhan title last week in blistering style, beating No1 Angelique Kerber, plus Halep, Konta and Dominika Cibukova. She also finished off No4 Garbine Muguruza for the loss of only five games in Beijing this week. This was, all in all then, an impressive win for Keys.

Keys was just 15 when she met Konta in their only previous meeting, an ITF event in 2010 that Keys won after Konta retired. But not only is this a different Keys—the 21-year-old made the finals of both Rome and Montreal this year and won in Eastbourne—but it is a different Konta.

And as Keys pointed out: “At this point, everyone’s trying to qualify, everyone’s trying to play their good tennis at the end of the year.”

One look at the Race to Singapore shows why.

The other semi-final in Beijing will pitch Agnieszka Radwanska, defending WTA Finals champion and already qualified for this year, against Elina Svitolina, who has risen several places in the race to Singapore this week, to No13. She has, though, lost all three previous matches to the Pole.

Current Race rankings: 1-8 Singapore, 9-20 Zhuhai

Qualified
1 Angelique Kerber
2 Serena Williams
3 Simona Halep
4 Agnieszka Radwanska
5 Karolina Pliskova
The chasing pack
6 Garbine Muguruza
7 Madison Keys
8 Dominika Cibulkova

9 Johanna Konta
10 Carla Suarez Navarro
11 Svetlana Kuznetsova
12 Petra Kvitova
13 Elina Svitolina
14 Venus Williams
15 Roberta Vinci
16 Timea Bacsinszky
17 Elena Vesnina
18 Sam Stosur
19 Barbora Strycova
20 Caroline Wozniacki

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