Even before play began, the fourth quarter of the women’s draw always looked wide open… that opening turned into a gaping wide chasm on day 2 when the two highest seeds, Simona Halep and Venus Williams both exited in the first round. Never was it imagined that the two players to oust Simona and Venus would keep their runs going all the way to the last eight. In an all-unseeded quarter-final with both players in uncharted territory, Johanna Konta and Shuai Zhang will meet for a place in the last four at the 2016 Australian Open.
Konta won her first match of the year against Venus Williams, 6-4 6-2, and has continued to improve, round-by-round with wins over Saisai Zheng (6-2 6-3), Denisa Allertova (6-2 6-2) and Ekaterina Makarova (4-6 6-4 8-6). Konta is already projected to rise to number 32 in the world and she’s gone a long way this week to prove that last year was no fluke after a wonderful second half to the year which included a fourth round appearance at the US Open. Konta’s match against Makarova was a tense and bruising affair. In many ways, their games are similar and it was obvious early on that there would be little to separate the pair. Konta got a little tight serving with scoreboard pressure at *4-5 in the first set. She lost the first set on a double fault, but responded well to win the second set.
Konta failed to serve out the match in the third set with another nervy game up *5-4; however, she kept plugging away and at the second time of asking, with some stellar serving and some unforced errors from Makarova, sealed one of the biggest wins of her career. Konta staked her claim as the new Bourne-GOAT having also reached the Eastbourne quarter-finals last year! I was so impressed with the way Konta was playing; hitting aggressively, returning deep, coming forward and moving so well from side-to-side. While she has shown some nerves in closing out sets at this tournament, her confidence gauge is high and she’s showing full belief in her gameplan.
Zhang’s run has shone like a beacon at this tournament; after securing her first ever Grand Slam main draw win in the first round against Simona Halep,6-4 6-3, she has continued to surprise with wins over Alizé Cornet (6-3 6-3), Varvara Lepchenko (6-1 6-3) and Madison Keys (3-6 6-3 6-3). The victory over Keys was a struggle on all counts with the American player in tears from a leg injury. For Zhang though, this was still another incredible occasion to go with the series of memorable moments she has created this week. Winning a Slam main draw match has seemingly broken the mental barrier and she is riding a hugeeee wave of confidence…
Head-to-head record: Konta and Zhang have split their two previous encounters; Konta won back at the US Open in 2012, 6-4 3-6 7-5, but Zhang turned the tables in Guangzhou in 2013, winning, 7-5 6-3.
Interesting stat: Zhang has won more matches at this one tournament than she managed throughout the first six months of the 2015 season.
Analysis: While this is a very unexpected quarter-final, I think it’s awesome. One of the reasons I enjoy watching women’s tennis is the unpredictability factor and the depth on display. Both players have truly earnt their place in the last eight and it’s been a pleasure to learn more about their stories, particularly Zhang. It’s also refreshing that both players will be in the same boat having never experienced a Grand Slam quarter-final before. For that reason, it makes it trickier to predict because you never quite know how either player will respond to the occasion. I think there will be plenty of nerves on display and i’d expect this to go the distance. While Zhang has displayed some awesome hitting this week, i’m leaning towards Konta, who I think has the more complete game and will be the more consistent on the day.
Prediction: Konta d. Zhang in 3 sets