Miami Open 2016: Resurgent Azarenka beats Konta to regain top-five ranking

Johanna Konta is beaten by Victoria Azarenka in the quarter-finals of the Miami Open

Johanna Konta, who has been breaking new ground on an almost weekly basis since her run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, was about to take on arguably her biggest test this year so far: a resurgent Victoria Azarenka who had been looking every inch the woman who won back-to-back Australian Open titles in 2012 and 2013.

The woman from Belarus, who has fought her way back from assorted injury problems and a ranking of No 38 a year ago to No8 this week, arrived in Miami with her first win over Serena Williams in two and a half years on her way to the Indian Wells title. So she was strong in form, high in confidence and aiming to make her own piece of history.

So tough is the Indian Wells-Miami double that only two women have managed to win both in the same year. Steffi Graf did so in 1994 and 1996—though at a time when Indian Wells was still a 64-woman draw—and Kim Clijsters did the near-impossible in 2005 playing both events unseeded.

Azarenka had yet to drop a set in reaching Miami’s quarter-finals, coming through one of the matches of the tournament against No4 seed Garbine Muguruza in the fourth round in two tie-breakers. It put her on a 19-1 run this season—she won Brisbane at the start of the year, too—and 27-6 in Miami, where she won the title in 2009 and 2011. Now she was on the verge of returning to the top five for the first time in almost two years.

But Azarenka was not the only player to be enjoying a rise in her rankings on this overcast Wednesday.

Konta jumped 100 places last year, arrived in Miami on a new career high of 23 after reaching the third round in Indian Wells, and was now into her first Miami quarter-final. Should she reach the final—which would be a career first for the Briton—she would break the top 20.

Already a more self-assured and confident woman than at this time last year, she also had one thing in her favour, a win over Azarenka in their only previous meeting last autumn—albeit by retirement in the second set. The Belarusian, naturally, dismissed that result, but admitted to being impressed by Konta’s progress since breaking into the top 150 on last summer’s grass season, and then breaking the top 30 this January.

“It’s really impressive to see how much she improved over the last couple of months. Obviously had some great results; playing with a lot of confidence. She has a very solid game; big serve. I’m just looking forward to that challenge. I think for me, it’s going to be our first meeting.”

There was a delay in proceedings while players and umpire decided whether the match could start at all, as rain began to fall during the warm-up, but under overcast skies and amid blustering winds, Konta stepped up to serve.

And what a serve it was: She held to love, held to love again in the third game with a cracking down-the-line backhand winner, and by the sixth game she seemed to be in charge of the match.

Another strong hold, and she took Azarenka to deuce for the second game in a row courtesy of a double fault. Konta fired a forehand winner to bring up break point, and Azarenka was now on a short fuse. She smashed the net in frustration, but nine minutes later, she had the hold.

Then, against the run of play, Konta’s aggressive hitting got her into trouble as she fired long once too often and faced 15-40. The Briton got back to deuce with a great cross-court pass but Azarenka smelled her chance, got a third bite of the cherry, and Konta double faulted.

It looked for a moment as though the Briton would get the break back as she continued to take the ball on the rise and earned another break point, but what looked a clean winner had missed the baseline by millimetres. Twice more she earned break point with bold strikes to the deep corners, but twice more Azarenka saved them and eventually served out the set, 6-4, with 10 winners to Konta’s 17, 36 points to Konta’s 37.

Now with her nose in front, though, Azarenka lifted her level, and where Konta had won 14/16 first-serve points in the first set, she would manage just 8-14 in the second, and Azarenka punished her second serve even more severely.

It was a cracking return of serve from the Belarusian that brought up three break points in the third game, and a double fault from Konta followed. Azarenka broke again in the fifth game and held to love for 5-1.

Konta had one last chance to break in the very last game—her only break-point in the set—but another sizzling pass snuffed out the chance and Azarenka took one step near the title, 6-2.

The former champion had made just two errors in that second set in a ruthless display of pressure tennis. And just as in Indian Wells, it will take some performance to halt her. Next up in the semis, it will be the task of either Angelique Kerber or Madison Keys to try, but no-one can now stop Azarenka reclaiming her top-five spot in the rankings.

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