July 08, 2019
Two years after Johanna Konta raised national expectations to giddy heights at Wimbledon with a stirring run to the semi-finals, she set speculation racing again by beating the two-times champion Petra Kvitova in three sets.
Johanna Konta battles past Petra Kvitova to reach Wimbledon last eight
All summer, Konta has been rewriting bits and pieces of British tennis history so it was no surprise she should return to that familiar territory after this edgy 4-6, 6-2, 6-4 win in two hours and 25 minutes on a balmy, barmy day on Centre Court, where she almost blew a 5-1 lead in the deciding set.
No 1 Court had already witnessed the low-key exit of the American teenager Cori Gauff, who found the former world No 1 Simona Halep way too strong in two quick sets. Uncertainty ruled.
Next up for Konta on Tuesday is another Czech, Barbora Strycova, ranked 54 in the world and who took nearly two and a quarter hours to beat 21st seed Elize Mertens 4, 6-7-5, 6-2 on court 12. Strycova won her only match against Konta, in two close sets in the fourth round on the hard court of Tokyo two years ago, which is not much of a guide. However, no matter who Konta plays in the next week, the burden of expectation will not dissipate.
Her numbers against the other remaining contenders on her side of the draw are encouraging: 3-0 over Alison Riske, who eliminated Ashleigh Barty, the world No 1; and 1-1 against Serena Williams, her win coming when they last met, a dramatic 6-1, 6-0 thrashing in wretched circumstances in San Jose last year – on the day the American heard her half-sister’s killer had been released from prison.
Konta has now won more matches on grass, 32, over the past four years than anyone on the Tour. Another three and she will be even more deliriously happy than she was courtside after seeing off Kvitova.
“Of course there was a little bit of nerves,” she said, “but I don’t put it down to nerves me not coming through that 5-3 game [in the third set, when she blew two match points]. The balls were coming at me at 100 miles an hour. She was playing really well and I was expecting to go to five-all at one point. I feel truly grateful to be here and am happy to still be here against the best players in the world.”
So, to return to the ever-lingering conundrum, can she match the heroics of Virginia Wade, the last British player to win the women’s title here, in 1977? The advice from Martina Navratilova, who won nine Wimbledons, was simple and direct: “She has to think: ‘Why not?’ You have to think you have a chance.”
Konta had a blinding clay season, culminating in a semi-final at Roland Garros, the first British player to get that far since Jo Durie in 1983. Since then, she has consolidated her grass form and arrived at Wimbledon in upbeat mood, fit and confident she could do as well as in 2017, perhaps better. But she knew Kvitova would be no pushover, even though she was undercooked and recovering from a right arm injury.
Johanna Konta battles past Petra Kvitova to reach Wimbledon last eight
Nerve, or bottle, comes in many forms, and Konta’s drop shot – a high-risk shot on grass if the bounce betrays the executioner – to hold for three-all was ample demonstration of that.
The grass, which behaved well in a dry, warm first week, showed occasional signs of bringing players down – literally – and the strain on knees to scoop under a flat, hard Konta forehand brought the best out of Kvitova on her way to a solid hold. The momentum was with the Czech in the early exchanges – but Konta showed in coming back hard at Sloane Stephens that she is always dangerous.
This time, Kvitova hit a rhythm that Konta could not match, and the first set was hers.
For all that there is widespread love for Kvitova, after her recovery from a knife attack two and a half years ago – not to mention her universal popularity in the locker room, where she has won the votes of her WTA colleagues six years in a row to win the Karen Krantzcke sportsmanship award – the cheers in the second set were for Konta when she broke at the first opportunity.
In a second game that went beyond 10 minutes through seven deuce points, Konta needed two aces to complete a significant hold under the most intense counterattack from Kvitova. She was leading 2-0 but it felt more like parity.
Kvitova faltered again with a weary backhand to hand Konta another break for 3-0. Konta had to ignore a marginal replay of her serve at 15-0 in the fourth game – which tested her “acceptance” philosophy – to hold for 5-1. A superb lob and a line-skimming backhand got Konta to set point on Kvitova’s serve, but she held.
Konta had the trainer on during the break to tape her left foot – and struck a third ace to level at a set apiece after an hour and a half. Nice, tidy work. She said later: “I tripped over my foot and it was a little bit sore, I just wanted to give it some support. It’s normal.”
A quarter of an hour into the deciding frame, Konta struck a wicked backhand that kissed the line for a crucial break, and held comfortably to lead 3-1. All was looking routine until nerves trembled her racket in the eighth game, when she twice squandered match points and saved three of four break opportunities.
The crowd’s anxiety levels rose appreciably as Kvitova held to love and Konta had her second chance to finish the job – which she did, relieved and ecstatic when her opponent’s backhand drifted long.
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