Rome Premier 2018: Ostapenko denies birthday win for Johanna Konta; Halep keeps one hand on No1

Jelena Ostapenko comes from a set down to beat Johanna Konta 2-6 6-3 6-4 on her 27th birthday in the last 16

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Johanna Konta
Johanna Konta was knocked out by Jelena Ostapenko Photo: Dubai Duty Free Championships

Jelena Ostapenko may have been playing for just the third time at the prestigious Rome Premier. Last year, ranked No50, she was even forced to come through qualifying, but that was then.

The now 20-year-old went on, just three weeks later, to lift the French Open trophy, announcing her arrival on the big stage with a bang, and she went on to reach the quarters at Wimbledon and score big through the Asian swing. The young Latvian with a personality as big as her game qualified for the WTA Finals at No7 in the world: She was here to stay.

A slow start to 2018 was quickly turned around as Ostapenko inched to No5 in the ranks after a final finish in Miami, and now faced Briton Johanna Konta—who was ranked No7 when they met in their only previous contest a year ago in Eastbourne.

The intervening months had been less generous to Konta, however. After going on to reach the semis at Wimbledon, she lost in the first round in five of her remaining six tournaments, was just edged out of the WTA Finals. She then watched points and rankings drain away during 2018 after failing to match her outstanding wins in 2017—the title in Sydney, quarter-finals at the Australian Open, and her first Premier Mandatory title in Miami.

So Konta arrived in Rome ranked 22 and with a 9-9 record, but began to show some of the old form and confidence with two good wins over No17 seed Magdalena Rybarikova and Su-Wei Hsieh. Now, on her 27th birthday, and on the loveliest court in Rome, the statue-fringed Pietrangeli, she had a chance to reach her first quarter-final since she retired injured against Elina Svitolina in Brisbane in January.

She started strongly, too, breaking twice to take a 5-1 lead as Ostapenko looked sluggish, complained of dizziness, and thumped a slew of errors. The Latvian’s serving was a dire 33 percent, and Konta made hay with her big forehand against the second serve. The Briton held to seal the set, 6-2, having not faced a break point and making just three unforced errors.

But the tide was about to turn. Already at the end of the first set, Ostapenko seemed to improve her energy levels and intensity, and sure enough, she began to press the Briton’s serve straight away. Konta fended off two break points in the second game, but the Latvian’s big-strike tennis claimed a love break in the fourth game, sealed with a sizzling backhand down-the-line winner.

Konta held through the remainder of the set, but Ostapenka was in full swing now, held to love for 5-2, and served out confidently for 6-3. She had made 14 winners to just five from Konta in that one set.

Konta, who was aiming to win three straight matches on clay for the first time, continued to go for her shots, but missed too often, and gave Ostapenko the rhythm to back her powerful baseline attack. The Latvian broke in the first game of the decider, held to love, and almost broke again in the third game. Konta was then denied her request for a time-out with her coach—she responded to his call rather than initiating the request herself—and serving in the seventh game, she was then called for a harsh time-violation.

Through it all, Ostapenko kept her mind on the job, and admirably, though she may have heaved a sigh of relief when Konta upped her attack but netted an easy volley after the Briton had worked her only break chance of the set.

There was no going back for Konta: She held for 4-5, but Ostapenko served out the win, 6-4, after more than two hours with 36 winners to her name.

It means that Konta can at least enjoy her birthday in one of the most popular cities on the tour, but she would certainly have preferred to put her feet up and watch her next scheduled opponents fight it out. As it is, Ostapenko is coming into form on the perfect courts to prepare her for her Roland Garros defence. It will be she who takes on either Daria Gavrilova or Maria Sharapova.

This remains a packed half of the draw topped, literally, by world No1 Simona Halep. The Romanian can be challenged for that top ranking during the tournament by No2 seed Caroline Wozniacki. Halep’s first challenge was to reach at least the quarter-finals in Rome after her runner-up finish last year, and she was gifted that when No13 seed Madison Keys withdrew from their third-round match because of a rib injury.

Now Halep’s target is to keep one place ahead of Wozniacki—who plays the last match on the Thursday schedule against No15 seed Anastasija Sevastova.

The other quarter-final place in the top half will be determined between US Open and Miami champion Sloane Stephens and the Madrid and Stuttgart semi-finalist Caroline Garcia.

In the bottom half, defending champion Elina Svitolina beat Daria Kasatkina, 0-6, 6-3, 6-2, and will next play former No1, Angelique Kerber, who beat Maria Sakkari, 6-1 6-1.

And in a replay of their first-round meeting in Madrid, Anett Kontaveit again got the better of No8 seed Venus Williams, this time in straight sets, 6-2, 7-6(3), the Estonian’s third top-10 win of 2018. She will play either Wozniacki or Sevastova.

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