US Open: Johanna Konta finds consistency and guile to reach last 16
Johanna Konta again demonstrated her ability to find her highest level on the biggest stages as she demolished the 33rd seed, Zhang Shuai, 6-2, 6-3 in 72 minutes to move into the fourth round of the US Open for a third time.
Konta has achieved a lot since those delirious days four years ago in the New York heat when she burst to the top of the sport by reaching the fourth round from qualifying, but throughout this week it has been clear she has also seen a lot. The more she advances through a draw, the more it is clear that her success is guided by experience.
The 16th seed arrived in questionable form. After an impressive summer resurgence where she reached a semi-final and quarter-final at the French Open and Wimbledon, she played erratically in the build-up to Flushing Meadows and was defeated by lower-ranked players in the first round of both Toronto and Cincinnati.
She was still shaking off the errors in her first-round match against Daria Kasatkina, which she survived in three tight sets. But since then she has soared. On Thursday she made light of the long rain delays to defeat Margarita Gasparyan 6-1, 6-0.
“I don’t believe in clicks or anything like that,” said Konta afterwards. “I strongly believe in a process, in a progression, and I’m constantly looking to grow and get better. Coming into this tournament, I lost in the first rounds in Toronto and Cincinnati and I tried to take it with perspective. I’ve played a lot of matches this year.”
Zhang is a talented, all-around baseliner with a solid serve, groundstrokes and movement. Like Konta, she also reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Konta sealed the break in the first game, winning with a searing backhand down the line, and it set the tone for the match as she rolled through the first set, serving well, hitting to safer targets and pounding ample winners.
As in the previous round, Konta complemented her weaponry with improved guile. After saving break points at 5-2 with blistering forehand winners, she mixed up her strokes on her own set point, utilising her backhand slice before drawing an error with a loopy backhand to capture the first set.
She continued to dominate early in the second, breaking early and demonstrating more variety with a slick drop volley to bring up a second break point at 3-1. But more errors began to pepper her game. She wasted three break points to move up a double break, then she failed to convert on another break point.
By the end Zhang endured the final few changes of end with her head bowed and her face buried in a towel, resigned to the destruction. Konta finished with a ratio of 34 winners to 18 unforced errors. Zhang managednine winners to 14 unforced errors. It wasn’t that she played a bad match, she simply couldn’t compete.
On Sunday Konta will face perhaps the best server in the world in the third seed, Karolina Pliskova, who was less impressive in her 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 victory over Ons Jabeur.
It promises to be complicated. Konta and Pliskova have faced each other five times at tour level. Although Pliskova leads the series 4-1, all meetings aside from the most recent in the final of Rome this year were contested in three tight sets. Pliskova is the ace leader with 387 and 80.6% service games won, and she will force Konta to serve at her best.
“I think she has a great year so far, so she’s, you know, playing well at Grand Slams and doing some good results in the big tournaments,” said Pliskova. “For me, she was always good player, so doesn’t matter how, you know, sometimes bad she maybe lost last year, was not her best year, but still she can play, she can serve. She has big weapons.”
The pair are only a year apart in age and they have seen each other at every stage of their senior careers. In 2011 they first met in an ITF Pro Circuit $25k event in Prerov, Czech Republic. On Sunday it will be under the New York spotlight.
“She’s maybe my age or maybe a little bit older, so we were always kind of close. That’s why we played so many times. I remember when she was still, like, from Australia,” said Pliskova, laughing. “Now she change, she’s Great Britain. I know her a lot. Also her journey, also her tennis. There is nothing that can surprise me.”