Rome | Konta exerts revenge on Venus Williams, survives double fixture to reach QFs
A truly hectic matchday saw most players take the stage twice, with British No.1 Jo Konta defeating Americans Sloane Stephens and Venus Williams, while many of the top seeds fell, including Halep and Kvitova, and withdrawals kept plaguing the tournament.
J. Konta (UK, 42) d. S. Stephens (USA, 8, seeded 7th) 6-7 (3) 6-4 6-1
Jo Konta was among the players forced to a very early start by a not impeccable organisation (10 am CET), but managed to beat seventh seed Sloane Stephens in two hours and a half, booking a second match later in the day.
Konta had already beaten Stephens in January in Brisbane (her only top 10 win of the season), and knew that a the American is very hard to read, looking passively disengaged before unleashing the occasional power, which means that she constantly needed to take the initiative first if she wanted to have a chance.
And this is how the match started, with Konta taking the fight to Stephens, before a great parry at the net gifted her with two break points in the second game. Stephens saved them with an inside-in winner and a good serve to the T, but was caught off guard again when targeted on the baseline, allowing the Brit to break with a forehand wide error, in a match played under the uncouth shadows of the trees constellating the Foro Italico.
As usual, Stephens didn’t look bothered by the disadvantage, and forced an approach mistake with a low return, going 15-40. Konta saved the break opportunities, profiting from her foe’s early lateral issues to wrong-foot her, but was caught by a couple of stormy return winners. She survived again with a deep serve and a perfect drop shot, and finally held with a serve&forehand combination.
Stephens mourned on the wasted chance, and quickly conceded a second break, apparently giving way to Konta, but then swapped rackets and catapulted herself back into the match by locking her opponent into a rally down the middle, fetching three more break opportunities. Konta saved two of them quickly, but a great cross-court backhand put Stephens on the board.
The momentum clearly switched, Konta couldn’t take a 5-2 lead, missing a backhand down the line, before getting stung by a pinpoint two-hander. A swinging volley saved her on that occasion, but folded with a couple of backhand mistakes. Stephens then took over, and returned her way to a third break, this time to love, going to serve for the set at 6-5. Konta re-upped her efforts, and forced a tie-break, but after an initial 2-2, Stephens provoked a miss volley off of a misdirected Konta approach, and didn’t look back, conceding only one more point, taking the set with a serve&forehand combination.
With nothing to lose, and very aware of the necessity for speed, in order not to be completely out of steam in the event of a later encounter, the Brit started to go for quicker combinations, earning three break points in the fifth game of the second set, taking a 3-2 lead thanks to a double fault, but immediately conceding with a long backhand.
In the eighth game, Konta found herself in a 3-4, 15-30 hole, but her best shot of the day, a short cross-court backhand, suddenly turned the duel around, as she found a great topspin forehand winner, and a venomously low chopped defence that elicited a mistake for the 4-4.
And a turn of events it was, for she proceeded to win eight of the ensuing nine games, finding solace in the tight-angled, skinny trajectories, opening the court like Julian Assange with a state secret, making her opponent throw away her racket in disgust after the decisive break in the ninth game.
From there on, it was plain sailing, as Konta proceeded to easily hold serve, breaking the American’s spirit with a break from 40-0 in the decider’s third game. By then, she was hitting a watermelon, finding the line with every shot she attempted, even strong-arming Stephens in rallies. Two more breaks soon followed, the last one coming in the final game, when the Australian-born rose to a match point with what was essentially a titanium-wrist half-volley from the baseline, passing her demoralised opponent, and finishing the job with one more topspin return that caused an error into the net, for her biggest win ever on the dirt. She would resume operations later against seven-time Slam champion Venus Williams.
J. Konta (UK, 42) d. V. Williams (USA, 50, WC) 6-2 6-4
After such a demanding three-setter, Konta found herself facing a third consecutive American opponent – she had defeated Alison Riske in the first round – and took her revenge against Venus Williams, the woman who had prevented her from reaching the Wimbledon final two years ago, soundly beating her 6-2, 6-4 in an hour and 12 minutes, in front of a surprisingly sparse audience – such an abundance of fixtures clearly spread it more than in previous days.
Obviously, Williams is a true champion of the sport, a highlander of historical level (just to give an idea, she won this same tournament 20 years ago, when her opponent was eight years old), but at almost 39, she’s very clearly past her peak, featuring in the main draw in virtue of a wildcard, and was handicapped by having played just one match before this clash – her sister Serena withdrew before their third round derby. Moreover, clay has never been her best surface, as she hasn’t won a title on the surface in nine years, and her game is rooted in a more classic attacking ethos, straying away from rallies and high bounces.
So, it could be expected that Konta, who was already settled in her shots, would start with a hotter hand, and this is exactly what happened: Williams, her right knee heavily bandaged, served at slothish paces, and the Brit had no issues whatsoever in returning them, fetching three immediate break points, and breaking with a cross-court backhand winner in what looked more like an exhibition early on.
However, after Konta took a 2-0 lead, Venus started moving much better (her serve remained limited by her wish not to put pressure on the ailing joint), and took JK (not Rowling) to a deuce in the fourth game with her heavy hitting to her opponent’s silhouette. Konta stayed solid though, and forced two errors by moving Williams around and serving a good kick to the body, managing to hold. After defending her serve with ease (she was particularly solid in the opener, putting 77% of her first attempts into play, and winning 76% of points on the first, and an astounding 80% on the second), she broke again in the fifth game, hitting two winners against the mere rally-starter that Venus’s serve was reduced to. A good kick saved an early chance, and Williams even had a couple of advantages with some old-fashioned stroke-depth, but Konta smelled blood and ravaged her with two forehand return winners on the ad court, before a nice drop shot variation and a cross-court winner built on two destabilising shots down the line doubled her lead. Two slow slice aces then closed the opening set in exactly half an hour.
The second was definitely livelier, as Konta’s serve began to falter a little. Apparently, the matter looked done and dusted, as she broke with a sleek, short cross-court forehand, but Williams upped her movement and raised the trajectories of her shots, throwing the brit off her rhythm, eliciting four errors on her way to her first break of the day, levelling at 1-1. The first serve kept misfiring, so a backhand return winner gave Williams a second break point in the fourth game, which was promptly cancelled by an assertive serve&backhand combo. However, Venus won the exact same replica of her previous point, only to be chased off by an inside-in forehand. Konta kept targeting the backhand with her serve, hitting a drop shot winner, but missed a forehand to prolong the game. A little luck helped though, as Williams missed two easy returns to push her to 2-2.
Williams took the hit, and was stung by another short cross-court forehand from Konta, falling to 0-40, and dropped serve after a rally. The return fest wasn’t over though, and Venus immediately broke back with a powerful forehand return.
After two quick holds, Konta knew that she could’t let the match go the distance, despite her adversary’s advanced age, and put everything she had in two deep returns, surging to 0-30. Williams reacted by trying to inject more pace into her serve, and hit an ace, but couldn’t find her first stroke afterwards, losing the ensuing rally to concede two break points, only managing to save the first one. Konta then kept her cool, and served the match out with two powerful backhands, reaching the last eight.
She will now face the young Marketa Vondrousova, who scored the upset of the day by beating Simona Halep in two hours and 12 minutes. While the size of the scalp taken by the Czech is that of a tennis mammoth, this is an unmissable opportunity for Konta to reach the semis in a Premier 5, and to secure a seed for the French Open and for Wimbledon.
Other results saw world No.1 Naomi Osaka win four sets with a 6-3 score to set up an early final with Madrid champion Kiki Bertens, who had to spend almost four hours on court after remaining entangled in a couple of three-setters – however, Osaka withdrew shortly before the match, giving way to the Dutch. Surprise eliminations included world No.2 and Madrid finalist Simona Halep, as well as Petra Kvitova, who breezed through her morning encounter, only to withdraw in the last match of the evening against Maria Sakkari. Here’s the whole list of results the deferred second round:
K. Mladenovic (Fra, 63, Q) d. B. Bencic (Swi, 15) 6-2 2-6 6-1
K. Bertens (Ned, 4, seeded 6th) d. A. Anisimova (USA, 54, LL) 6-2 4-6 7-5
M. Buzarnescu (Rom, 29) d. J. Goerges (Ger, 18, seeded 16th) 6-4 3-6 4-4 ret.
G. Muguruza (Spa, 19) d. D. R. Collins (USA, 30) 6-4 4-6 6-2
N. Osaka (Jap, 1) d. D. Cibulkova (Svk, 33) 6-3 6-3
C. Suarez Navarro (Spa, 31) d. A. Cornet (Fra, 53, Q) 6-3 3-0
D. Kasatkina (Rus, 21) d. K. Siniakova (Cze, 45) 2-6 6-4 6-1
S. Kenin (USA, 37) d. M. Keys (USA, 14, seeded 13th) 6-7 (2) 6-3 6-4
M. Vondrousova (Cze, 44) d. S. Halep (Rom, 2, seeded 3rd) 2-6 7-5 6-3
P. Kvitova (Cze, 5, seeded 2nd) d. Y. Putintseva (Kaz, 38) 6-0 6-1
M. Sakkari (Gre, 39, Q) d. A. Kontaveit (Est, 16, seeded 14th) 6-3 6-2
These are the results from the third round, played from mid-afternoon onwards:
K. Mladenovic (Fra, 63, Q) d. A. Barty (Aus, 9, seeded 8th) 6-2 6-3
V. Azarenka (Blr, 51, WC) d. G. Muguruza (Spa, 19) 6-4 3-1 ret.
K. Bertens (Ned, 4, seeded 6th) d. C. Suarez Navarro (Spa, 31) 6-4 1-6 6-3
N. Osaka (Jap, 1) d. M. Buzarnescu (Rom, 29) 6-3 6-3
K. Pliskova (Cze, 7, seeded 4th) d. S. Kenin (USA, 37) 4-6 6-4 6-3
M. Vondrousova (Cze, 44) d. D. Kasatkina (Rus, 21) 7-5 2-6 6-2
M. Sakkari (Gre, 39, Q) d. P. Kvitova (Cze, 5, seeded 2nd) 7-5 5-7 4-0 ret.