Johanna Konta’s path to the semi-finals of the Australian Open is blocked by a woman who, in the words of the British number one, is on an even “more incredible journey” than she is. Dom Kureen takes a look at what lies ahead for the woman blazing a British tennis trail.
Born in Sydney in 1991, Johanna Konta relocated with her family to Eastbourne in 2005, at the age of 14 (only gaining British citizenship in 2012). Now she is set to become the first British woman to contest a Grand Slam quarter-final for 32 years when she takes on Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai on Rod Laver Arena later today.
Having beaten seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in straight sets in the opening round, Konta held her nerve over three hours and four minutes to defeat brilliant Russian Ekaterina Makarove 8-6 in the decisive third set of their fourth-round match.
Underachiever to contender
This time last year Konta slumped to number 147 in the world rankings following a straight sets loss in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne. The following month took her to Arizona and California, where she earned just over £700 in two tournaments on the second-tier ITF circuit.
Victory over Zhang would place her inside the world’s top 30 for the first time, a position that guarantees seeding for all of the majors.
The work she has done with mental coach Juan Coto has been well documented, but the 24-year-old has also made technical adjustments to her game.
On the other side of the net
Her next opponent Zhang has previously reached the top 30 herself, although a dismal reversal of fortunes in 2015 saw her drop outside the top 100 by the end of last season. This, coupled with a Grand Slam record of 0-14, the worst of anyone inside the top 300, meant that she was given little chance of progressing beyond the first round again this time.
Aged 27 and seemingly going nowhere, she considered retiring to open a coffee shop before opting to devote another year to her career on the WTA circuit.
It was no surprise to her when she was paired with second seed Simona Halep in round one.
“Before the draw, I already guessed I would play Halep, because all the time I play the top players,” the 27-year-old told Kureen.
But, for once, a bad draw was not followed by a Grand Slam defeat. In the first Tuesday night session on Margaret Court Arena, the qualifier ranked 133 in the world won 6-4 6-3.
Konta is just over two years Zhang’s junior, but her career seems to be barely approaching its zenith.
“Eat, sleep, repeat,” is her mantra as she prepares for an Australian Open quarter-final that seemed totally inconceivable 12 months ago.
Fellow Briton Andy Murray also plays in the quarter-finals in Melbourne later today, against veteran Spaniard David Ferrer.
The 28-year-old Scot offered some advice for Konta as she aims to continue her unlikely run by reaching the last four.
“She’s just got to keep doing what she’s doing. Keep her head down, keep working hard, stay calm,” said Murray, who has reached the final four times previously.
“She’s doing great. To back up what she was doing at the end of last year was fantastic reward for all of the hard work she has put in”