Britain’s Johanna Konta is on a roll in New York, marching into the round of 16 at the US Open with a bit of a swagger.
There was nothing easy about that match, I had to stay present, at any point it could have changed and that’s what you have to be prepared for. Johanna Konta
“Nothing easy about that match,” Konta said in her on court interview after racing past Zhang Shuai, 6-2 6-3, in 72 minutes.
Having spent less than an hour on court on Thursday defeating Margarita Gasparyan with the loss of just a single game, Konta was equally efficient against the No 33 seed from China, who had spent close to two and a half hours dispatching Ekaterina Alexandrova in 3 sets a day earlier.
Konta has turned around her form, arriving in New York with 0-2 deficit match record on the hard court swing, but finding her mojo just in time for the final Grand Slam of the year.
“I don’t think I necessarily allowed losing in the first round of Toronto or Cincinnati really to discourage me in any way,” Konta said after the match. “If I look at it from a big-picture perspective, I’ve played a lot of matches this year.
“I think coming into US Open this year, I just tried to keep along the same path more than anything.”
Holding a 4-1 career head-to-head record against her opponent before the action began, Konta was in command from the outset, scoring a service break in the very first game and then never seriously challenged by Zhang.
The 5-foot-11 inch Briton controlled play with her booming serve and blistering forehand.
She dropped a total of 6 points on her delivery, losing just 1 point on serve in the last set when she held 3 times to love.
From the baseline, Konta dictated play, running the 30-year-old Zhang from sideline to sideline with deep groundstrokes and often finishing the point with her booming forehand, scoring 9 winners off that side.
The Brit has now matched her best US Open result in 2015 and 2016.
“There was nothing easy about that match,” she said. “I had to stay present, at any point it could have changed and that’s what you have to be prepared for.”
It was an impressively consistent performance that saw her strike a stunning 34 winners to just 18 unforced errors.
“I was prepared to adapt whenever I needed to. I thought I just dealt with the challenges well today of the opponent I faced and also the conditions.”
It was a breezy day, and yet Konta hit a superb array of un-returnable shots, showing a variety in her game that her somewhat lack-lustre opponent simply could not match.
The British No 1 set her standard in the very first rally, which lasted for 14 strokes and ended with a crushing forehand by the 28-year-old.
It set the tone, as she struck 5 winners in the opening game, sealing the break with a massive backhand winner down the line off a decent second serve from Zhang.
The Chinese had been served notice, and spent much of the opening set trying to hang on against a player heading towards the peak of her powers.
The vital 2nd break arrived to push Konta into a 5-2 lead when, having lost only 1 point on her serve by that stage, she twice found herself attempting to stave off a break.
She steadied the ship in typical style, driving a couple of winners into the corners to eventually pocket the set when Zhang woefully miscued a groundstroke.
Having hit 18 winners in the first set to just 8 unforced errors, Konta did not miss a beat at the start of the second, working herself clear with more impressive hitting from the back court.
Although she missed 3 chances to break in the 5th game, then another in the 7th, she remained utterly reliable, not giving up a single point in any of her first 3 service games of the set.
The French Open semi-finalist finished with a flourish, crunching 2 superb winners as she sealed the match by breaching Zhang’s delivery for the 2nd time in the set as the Chinese sent a backhand long on the 2nd match point.
“I just played the match well,” she said in her final assessment of a job well done. “I thought I gave enough variation, I thought I just asked enough good questions.
“I think there’s always going to be matchups on tour where it might be working a little bit more in your favour than not.
However, that doesn’t guarantee an outcome of a match,” Konta added on her 5th career win in 6 meetings with Zhang.
“I think overall I knew playing against Shuai that she was going to raise her level, she was going to come out playing inspired.
“I just felt prepared for whatever was going to happen. I thought I just played the game well. I thought I gave enough variation. I thought I just asked enough good questions.
“Just pleased to have come through really.”
Karolina Pliskova lies in wait for Konta in what will be her 3rd visit to the 4th round at Flushing Meadows, never having progressed further, and she will be aiming to end that jinx against the big-hitting Czech.
The No 3 seed overcame 23 break points and 49 winners from Tunisian Ons Jabeur on Friday in Louis Armstrong Stadium, to hold on for a 6-1 4-6 6-4 win, after having looked in complete control at the outset.
She was leading 6-1, 2-0, when Jabeur made her first hold and seemed to get new life, dialling in her forehand and taking advantage of a dip in Pliskova’s serving performance, which dropped from 76 percent in the first set to 48 percent in the second.
Jabeur broke back with a lunging first-serve return followed by an aggressive rally that opened the court for a forehand winner and rattled off 3 more games, lost serve to love while trying to close out the second set, then broke again for the set with a forehand winner from a kneeling position at mid-court.
Pliskova cleaned up her game in the final set and got an early break, but Jabeur wouldn’t go away.
Continuing to hit forehand winners, ending the match with 18 and 49 winners, she earned break-back points in the next 2 games, but Pliskova, who leads the WTA in aces and service games won, came up with big serves to stave them off.
Trailing, 1-4, Jabeur continued to fight and broke back with a forehand crosscourt winner, then held with an ace, and earned more break points in the next game, but Pliskova showed more consistency down the stretch to close out the match and earn her fourth trip to the fourth round.
“She can hit anything from any part of the court, and the ball stays very low. It’s not a game I love to play,” Pliskova admitted in her on-court interview after the match. “Physically, it was also very tough. But it’s important to win, so I don’t care how I feel.”
Her next opponent, Konta, has become a big name in the Grand Slams over the last few years, starting with a semi-final showing at the 2016 Australian Open, and reaching the penultima
She also made the Wimbledon quarter-final this year.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily any specific magic click or pill or anything, but I definitely feel like I’ve been giving myself every opportunity possible to get better and grow,” the Brit added.
“I think I’ve had some pretty good results outside of Slams, as well. I mean, I’d like to do even better at Slams, obviously.
“I think I’m definitely pleased to have made it to the second week of the last three Slams. I think that’s a really good achievement for me.”
There are several story lines in her next match against the 2016 US Open runner-up and No 3 seed Karolina Pliskova.
A win would put Konta into the US Open quarter-final for the first time in her career and quash any chances that Pliskova has of returning to the World No 1 spot at the end of the tournament.
“Overall I’m just looking forward to, again, playing Karolina in the fourth round,” Konta said. “I think it’s guaranteed when you go on the court against Karolina that there’s going to be parts in the match, especially in the service games, when there’s not going to be much for you to do.
“I think, just going into the match with good tolerance.
“I also like to think that I’ve also even grown as a player since Rome, as well.
“I am actually looking forward to seeing how I can do a bit better, how I can just maybe ask some better questions this time around.”
Not since Virginia Wade won the first US Open in 1968 on the nearby Forest Hills grass courts has a British woman won this tournament, or even reached the final.
Hopes of ending that drought are now firmly pinned on Konta.