MIAMI — Johanna Konta chipped away at Venus Williams in the semifinals of the Miami Open on Thursday evening like a patient laborer. Konta took a little here, a little there. Williams dug in her heels and resisted, but Konta was unrelenting. She saw Williams brush aside break point after break point, escape from one perilous situation after another, but Konta still kept her composure.
Ultimately, her patience paid off. The reality is that these are similarly built women, all lean muscle and live arm. They both attack a serve as furiously as they hit one. Each of them likes to crack the forehand and turn the heat up in rallies.
At 6-foot-1, Williams is two inches taller, which gives her an advantage. But at age 25, Konta is 11 years younger than Williams. And that’s an even greater advantage.
It was probably the reason that Konta was able to chip away and slowly break down Williams. The British player hung in tenaciously and aggressively. She navigated fierce rallies. She survived drawn-out games, as well as numerous shifts of momentum that might have crushed a lesser spirit. She broke Williams down to the point that nothing was really working, save her serve.
You know the serve. The one that became a model for young female players the world over back about a decade ago. Ultimately, when all else was chipped away, Venus’ just couldn’t carry the entire load. Konta won the match 6-4, 7-5 in a hair over two hours to advance to a final against Caroline Wozniacki on Saturday.
“I was lucky to win that,” Konta said, following the match. “There were a lot of momentum shifts, those 40-love games that became deuce games, like that. But I kept things in good perspective, even when I lost games in which i had chances. I was playing the right way.”
That correct approach was to match Williams in the power and aggression department, and to force the action by trying to play from close to the baseline. It was a sound strategy, even though there were moments when Williams’ explosive athleticism — still the best in the game at any given moment — made it look dubious.
In three different games at crucial periods in the match, Williams dug herself into a love-40 hole when serving. She blasted her way out of two of them, and Konta converted the third break point in the other game partly with a bit of luck. But Konta did not really blow those opportunities — not any more than Williams did when she had break points. The stats say that Williams won just three of 10 break points, while Konta won five of 17.
Error fest? Hardly. The women played great when they were down.
While Konta ultimately appeared to exploit Williams’ age, it wasn’t part of her game plan.
“To be honest, both Venus and Serena defy all the odds in every sense,” she said. “And Venus has been playing at such a high level this year that I had no doubt at all that she would be there until the very end.”
But there was no good explanation other than fatigue for the way Williams began missing routine rally shots as the third set hurtled toward its final games. Williams is not just 36, she suffers from Sjogren’s Syndrome, an immune system disorder that causes fatigue and joint pain.
The circumstances make Williams a unique player. That’s why her peers tend to see her as much more than the owner of a serve that can break teeth or a seven-time Wimbledon champion.
“You’re not just up against Venus the tennis player, but so many other things,” said Konta, who improved to 3-1 against Williams. “She’s a Grand Slam champion, sure, but there’s the years and years, decades of experience. You know there’s not one situation she hasn’t been in many times. When you’re up against someone like that you automatically want to bring out the best in yourself because she’s got such a massive repertoire.”
On Thursday night, Konta brought out the best in herself. As a result, Williams found herself in a situation she couldn’t escape, and her dream of winning the Miami Open again, 16 years since she last did it, expired on a balmy Florida night.