Johanna Konta had to conquer nerves she thought she had long buried to beat the Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and 22 minutes in Melbourne on Wednesday and stands one win away from becoming the first British finalist in a slam since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977.
“I didn’t feel I did much wrong,” Konta said afterwards. “She definitely raised her level and made me work for it. It was a great battle to be a part of.” Victory earned her a semi-final against the German Angelique Kerber, who earlier on Laver Arena pulled off a surprise 6-3, 7-5 win over Victoria Azarenka, who was seeded 14th after coming back from injury, but playing way above that to this point.
Reminded she was the favourite today but almost certainly would not be against Kerber, Konta said, “Whether you’re the favourite or the underdog, I think that’s very much a circumstantial thing outside of the match that I’m playing. I don’t really think about that. It’s neither here nor there for me.”
In the middle of a hot and steamy day, both players struggled for early rhythm but a double-fault and some uncertain hitting from behind the baseline by Zhang in her second service game handed the first break to Konta.
It seemed the match would settle into a pattern of her recent wins, in which she took early leads and then consolidated them, sometimes more convincingly than others. Until she began her excellent run of form in the second half of last northern summer, Konta had a habit of blowing good positions in important matches, which was reflected in her ranking of 147.
However, she has totally reinvented herself and, with the aid of a mind coach, has become a much more assured competitor. When Konta broke Zhang to love with a sizzling crosscourt forehand for 5-2 after 25 minutes, it did not look as if Zhang was going to detain the British No1 for long.
Konta was hitting her ground strokes so deep and hard that Zhang struggled to get across the T in most of the exchanges. Pinned to the baseline, she was reduced to retrieving for much of the first set. It slowly took its toll on her legs after what must have been an arduous and mentally exhausting experience to get this far in a major tournament for the first time.
In 14 previous slam appearances, Zhang could not get out of the first round. Here she cashed in on injuries that cramped the power and efficiency of the world No 2 Simona Halep for the biggest win of her career, then, her confidence sky-high, accounted for the accomplished French player Alize Cornet and the Americans Varvara Lepchenko and Madison Keys, the 15th seed who made the semi-finals here last year.
That was some résumé coming into the quarter-finals of a slam, and Konta soon discovered what the fuss was all about.
Against the run of play, Zhang took Konta to deuce in the eighth game, got to break point with a rasping forehand down the line and was audibly grateful for her opponent’s second double fault to stay in the first set.
Now the big shots started to flow from Zhang’s racket, as she left Konta standing with a crosscourt forehand winner, and held with a smash at the net.
Serving for the set a second time, Konta edged her way to 40-30 with some well-struck strokes from deep, but again Zhang forced deuce point. Konta hit long to hand Zhang break point and the tension rose appreciably.
Two aces and two big serves down the middle got Konta out of trouble and she took the set after 48 minutes; it was a tougher task than it should have been.
The strain of the journey began to show on Zhang in the second set, and her hands dropped to her knees when Konta held for 2-1. She was fighting hard but looked spent when failing to reach a drop shot that earned Konta a break point. Zhang’s weary backhand volley into the net on the next point signalled the beginning of the end.
Konta had to save break point for 5-1, her serve again looking a little shaky. Serving to stay in the match, Zhang looked exhausted, one serve clicking in at just 116kph. Konta got to match point with backhand Zhang hardly moved to reach, but it took her five more points to finish the job with a forehand that cruelly clipped the net and dribbled across to Zhang’s side.
“It was a bit anticlimactic, wasn’t it?,” Konta laughed. “Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change it, but... also I have a lot of respect for her as player. I’ve known her for quite some years, and I think what she achieved her is incredibly special. That’s what I told her at the end of the match, that I was really happy to see her back.”
Asked about her Australian and British affiliations, the Sydney-born player said, “Actually I am a tri-citizen. I’ve got a Hungarian passport as well. Just add that into the mix, guys. I mean, I’m pretty much the female version of Jason Bourne. But I definitely belong to Great Britain.”
This article was written by Kevin Mitchell at Melbourne Park, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 27th January 2016 04.05 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010