Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Serena Williams Ends Johanna Konta's Australian Open Dream

Australian Open

Johanna Konta will console herself with the stark reality that she lost to a six-times champion here on a warm Wednesday afternoon, but she will know too that Serena Williams, who beat her for the loss of five games in an hour-and-a-quarter at Rod Laver Arena, remains on a different level.

The world No9 did well to extend the 35-year-old American here and there, but she could not sustain her attack and, in quick bursts, the rallies whizzed by almost before she knew where she was – which was on a pretty big stage in the biggest test of her career. It was no shame to lose to Williams near her peak, though.

The American now plays the 34-year-old Croatian Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the semi-finals and, for all that she celebrated the presence of two thirtysomethings in the concluding stages of a major, she will look forward to that – and yet another date in the final.

“Mirjana has been playing so well. I played her nearly two decades ago. To see her in the semi-finals is inspiring for me.”

Ahead of her 34th grand slam semi, Williams took time to compliment the loser courtside. “She’s been playing so well,” she said of 25-year-old Konta, “won Sydney and cleaning up her matches. She’s definitely a future champion here, for sure.

“My main focus is my serve [which she ranted about at times during the match]. I admit I complain a lot on court, that’s my thing.” Indeed. Williams hit 10 aces, one of them at 121 miles an hour in the last game of the match.

There was little between them in the first quarter of an hour, when Konta got a chance to break but could not quite close it out and then dropped serve after fighting through deuce to go 1-4 down. Although Williams had won 19 of the 32 points contested to that stage, the exchanges were still competitive.

As Chris Evert said later, “It seemed liked a much closer match. It did not seem like a 6-2, 6-3 score at all.” It might to Konta, though. She will know she had her chances and did not take them, squandering two of three hard-won break points.

Konta has built her dramatic improvement on an attachment to a simple principle: build a bubble that excludes the opponent, the circumstance and even the point. Stan Wawrinka, another player who underperformed early in his career, mastered that strategy and has a chance here of winning a fourth slam; Konta is yet to break through to that level but she has acquired the tools.

The American Nicole Gibbs said after her compatriot overwhelmed her in the third round that playing Williams was like playing the player and playing the legend. “I have literally been watching her for the entirety of my tennis life,” she said. “I think that does play into how you feel on the court. It becomes more than a tennis match.”

Sergiy Stakhovsky said something similar after upsetting Roger Federer at Wimbledon in the second round of Wimbledon in 2013.

However, you’ve got to catch these great players early in the tournament and in the match. Williams has built up a great head of steam in this tournament and the British No1 met pretty much the best version available on Wednesday. She insisted before the match that although – like Gibbs – she had been watching Williams from afar all through her gilded career, she would not let the occasion get to her. It was the very virus that had held her back years ago, and she has done magnificently well to find the antidote.

Konta did not flinch from the challenge, but her racquet began to shake a little under a steady onslaught of deep, angled ground strokes and, after fighting deuce three times, in the eighth game, she surrendered the set with an overcooked forehand.

It had lasted 38 minutes, so this was no walkover. Nevertheless, Konta needed to hit back quickly to make a contest of it.

A second-serve ace in the first game of the second set showed how confident Williams had grown, and she added another to hold. She was hitting her forehands at 77mph, six miles an hour faster than her tournament average.

Konta’s first serve had dipped from its usual consistency to 56% and she had to save three break points at the first time of asking in the second set.

It transpired the Williams forehand that was called long to give Konta the game clipped the baseline – but she did not challenge. On such simple twists of fate do grander events sometimes turn. Andy Murray allowed a similar call to stand in the late stages of his defeat by Mischa Zverev, although that was pretty much a shot fox by then.

The escape lifted Konta and she attacked with relish to force a rare poorly-hit forehand from Williams to break in the third game. If she had to stay “in the now”, as she puts it, to continue to ignore the fact that the player across the net had won 22 majors, this was it.

She held for 3-1 – and from the end where the high noon sun always causes serves a problem on a cloudless day. At the other end, now, a frustrated Williams screamed to her box, “I can’t serve!” and then struck her fifth and sixth aces to hold. As Pam Shriver observed, “The greats always play better when they’re down.”

She showed that when she broke to love for 3-3, scrambling out of trouble before punishing an off-balance smash with a cool forehand down the line.

And then Konta grabbed another break point in the fourth game to suggest this fight might not be over – and again Williams found a pair of aces to hold. It was like a high-stakes poker game.

Konta could do little about the backhand that broke her in the eighth game, and Williams went up to the baseline with the sun at her back to serve for the match after only an hour and a quarter. A 121mph ace up the T gave her three match points, and another strong, swinging serve in the same spot forced Konta wide enough to net the return.

Ultimately, there is as much pressure being Serena as beating Serena, and her few brief moments of anxiety here passed as much because of her own conviction as her opponent’s inability to handle her power.

She should feel more comfortable, though, in the semi-final against the world No 79 Lucic-Baroni – who did brilliantly earlier to fight her way past the Czech fifth seed Karolina Pliskova in three sets – than she did against Konta. That, at least, ought to be a minor consolation for the “Sydney-born” player, as the local media has insisted on calling her over the first 10 days.



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