By the time she had reached the fourth round at the US Open and the semi-finals of the Australian Open, she had not managed a single match-win at her home Major: four starts, four first-round losses. But come 2017, with just one win to her name in five years at The Championships, she made it all the way to the semis and to World No4.
She had won one of the elite WTA tournaments in Miami, too, but she would go on to win just two more matches in that season and miss out on the WTA Finals by one place.
Her loss of form and confidence extended into last year, with early losses at Wimbledon and the US Open, and a slip in the ranks to 50, her lowest in three years.
She tried a couple of changes to her coaching set-up, and finally tied up with the calm and quietly-spoken Dimitri Zavialoff, and it appears to have been a match made in heaven. His aim is to have his player work things out for herself, focus on the moment, and it worked wonders.
That, and the boost of Fed Cup success on home soil in April, seemed to lift Konta’s self-belief, and her powerful tennis has flourished—though with the addition of some nice variety around the front of the court.
She arrived back on home turf this summer following her best ever clay season: the finals in Rabat and Rome, and her first semi-final run at Roland Garros—which indeed marked the first time she had gone beyond the second round in a Major since that Wimbledon semi almost two years ago.
Konta was back in the mix, beating the likes of Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams and Kiki Bertens, and perhaps most impressively, taking out two-time former champion, Petra Kvitova, to reach the quarters this week.
Now she played a very different style of player, one who brought less power but more flair and tactical variety, the 33-year-old Barbora Strycova, a former Wimbledon quarter-finalist who had beaten three seeds on her way to the last eight, including No4 Bertens and No21 Elise Mertens.
The two women had played only once before, a very close affair on the hard courts of Tokyo in 2017. Konta assessed her opponent thus:
“She’s a very crafty player. She knows how to mix up the game. She knows how to play on this surface.”
As for the Czech—one of two unseeded compatriots in the last eight—she had the air of someone with nothing to lose, for whom this may be her last Wimbledon:
“This is my 17th Wimbledon, so I just said to myself, OK, I try to enjoy every single moment on the court, and every match I play and every match I win it’s a bonus for me… Every day, even if I have a day off, I walk around the court, look where I was playing when I was a junior and I’m proud of myself.”
It is also worth remembering that Strycova is a high-quality doubles exponent, ranked No3 in that format, winner of 26 titles, three already this year. She is, then, happy to come forward, use her deft net skills, and mix things up.
Konta began strongly, breaking in the second game and holding for 3-0. But come the seventh game, she thumped two forehands wide and faced break point. This time, her forehand let her down, and Strycova broke, but tested again on serve, Konta saved break point, deploying a couple of fine drop shots, and held for 5-4.
It would go to a tie-break, and Strycova edged it, never leading by more than two points throughout, 7-6(5), after an hour of play. However, the unforced error count spoke volumes: Strycova six, Konta 22.
The Briton’s confidence seemed blown as she struggled to tackle the increasingly varied shots coming to her. Konta’s serve, which had the best success rate among the eight remaining women, seized up, while the Czech’s angle, spin and change of direction broke down the Konta rhythm.
Strycova broke and held, 3-0, broke again for 5-1, and served out the win, 6-1, after another half hour’s play—her first Major semi-final in her 53rd appearance. And it was a crowd-pleaser all the way, even if at the expense of the home favourite.
The Czech’s beaming smile said it all—after pointing out that she now had to get ready for her doubles match, where she was also aiming for the quarters:
“My voice is shaking because I can’t believe it… It was one of the best matches I played here. I haven’t been playing on Centre Court, so it was a special moment for me.”
How far this fairytale journey will go depends on Strycova’s next formidable opponent: Serena Williams, seven-time champion, with six more Wimbledon titles in doubles.
The great American was runner-up here last year, just months after returning to the tour from maternity leave. Now she met fellow American Alison Riske, another unseeded player with a talent for grass. However, despite Riske being 29 years old, these two had never met in a singles match.
Did Riske have the energy to make a real fight of it, though? She had played three setters in all four matches thus far, coming back from a set down in three of them, but showing huge determination against the likes of Donna Vekic, Belina Bencic and finally world No1 Ashleigh Barty.
She started strongly this time, breaking Williams in the third game, but Williams broke straight back for 3-3. There was another break apiece, too, as both women stuck aggressively to the baseline, before Williams finally regained the lead with a love hold, 5-4. She made one more timely break, and lifted her fist to her box in defiance: the first set was hers, 6-4, 16 winners for just eight errors, in a hard-fought 37 minutes.
The second set proved to be a mirror image of the first, with the two tightly bound until the ninth game, when all at once, Riske had a break point and took it with a superb volley winner. She held for 6-4.
The next set began with a break apiece, but Williams looked more formidable, more determined, with every rally, moving well, hitting big, roaring herself on. She broke again, 3-1, only to give up the advantage, but the turning point came in a long eighth game, with Williams now pummelling to backhand and forehand, and she worked her fourth break chance with a drop shot and volley winner. Riske double faulted, and the decisive break was made. Williams served it out with her 19th ace after exactly two hours, 6-3.
She realised it had been a close-run thing:
“I wouldn’t have won that match a couple of weeks ago. I’m glad I was able to come through. She was honestly playing amazing, she beat so many great players. [But] I was really pumped, it was for a place in the semis at Wimbledon, and that doesn’t happen every day. It’s a long, arduous road.”
In the bottom half of the draw, the two highest remaining seeds, No7 Simona Halep and No8 Elina Svitolina, also faced unseeded challengers.
Halep took on world No50 Zhang Shuai, who had beaten the former No1 in their last two meetings, and with considerable ease. They had not played on grass before, but the Chinese woman continued where she had left off to break Halep immediately, and hold for a 3-0 lead.
The lead almost grew to 5-1 in a long sixth game, but Halep fended off break points and a clutch of deuces to hold, and then broke. They edged onwards, with little between them, finding angles and down-the-line baseline precision to reach a tie-break, and once there, Halep edged a lead that Zhang could never quite close, 7-6(4), sealed by a cracking forehand winner.
From there, Halep took control, breaking in the fourth game of the second set, 3-1, and again for 5-1. She served out the match, 6-1, in under an hour and a half, to reach her second semi-final at Wimbledon.
But who would she play next?
Svitolina played the youngest quarter-finalist, 22-year-old Karolina Muchova, ranked 68, and like Riske, both were new to the Wimbledon quarter-finals.
Again, much depended on how much the young Czech had left in her legs after a marathon effort over compatriot, No3 seed Karolina Pliskova, to win 13-11 in the third set. She raced to a 4-1 start, but Svitolina reined her in and broke for 6-5, serving it out, 7-5.
The young Ukrainian then raced to a 5-2 lead, serving for the match, only to be broken, and had to try again at 5-4. This time, she did it, 6-4, to reach her first Major semi-final.
She and Halep have played each other seven times before, 4-3 to Svitolina—but they have never met on grass. Which of them will reach their first Wimbledon final?
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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