BEIJING, CHINA - No.14 Johanna Konta set aside the high-stakes pressure of her big semifinal showdown against No.9 Madison Keys, scoring the upset with a 7-6(1), 4-6, 6-4 to advance to the biggest final of her career at the China Open. Konta will play No.3 Agnieszka Radwanska in Sunday's final.
With a run to her second final of the season, Konta vaults into the Top 10 on Monday, becoming the first British woman to be ranked in the Top 10 since Jo Durie in 1984.
"I know I've achieved something good whenever I'm mentioned in the same sentence as her," Konta told reporters with a laugh.
The 25-year-old also closes in on qualifying for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global.
Konta's rise is the most surprising story of 2016.
That's saying a lot given this is the same year that saw Angelique Kerber, who had never made a Slam final before, win two major titles and unseat Serena Williams at No.1. But I still give Konta the edge for the most surprising, unforeseen rise of the year. 17 months ago she was ranked No.146 and a surprising surge through the end of the season, where she made her the Round of 16 at the US Open and her first WTA quarterfinal in Wuhan, and finished inside the Top 50, a remarkable rise in and of itself.
It's one thing to have a good few months. It's another to follow that up to build, week after week, to a career-best season. The 25-year-old started the year with her shock run to the Australian Open semifinals and has continued to chip away at her ranking in workmanlike fashion. She won her first title at the Bank of the West Classic, besting Venus Williams in three sets. Now she has a chance to win one of the biggest titles on the tour on Sunday and put herself on the brink of Singapore. It's a truly remarkable story.
Konta belongs in the Top 10.
She may not have the jaw-dropping power or hot-shot worthy athleticism or shot-making as the other women in the Top 10, but Konta has more than earned her spot with her steady brand of power tennis and much-improved serve. Her win over Keys is her 7th win over a Top 10 player this season (to four losses) and she's now made the quarterfinals or better at nine events this season, including the Australian Open, Olympics, and two Premier Mandatory events.
"That's a wonderful thing to see, to have that stat against the Top 10," Konta said. But I think it's more my application against every player I play. I think that's what's been able to give me the consistency that I've had and what I continue to work towards to be able to have a long and healthy career.
"I don't necessarily separate Top 10 wins from my other wins. But, again, I am very happy to have been involved in the match that I was involved in today. I think I'll be able to take a lot from that."
She's been consistent all year long.
Andy Murray has been tracking Konta's progress closely throughout the season and has been overheard discussing her various Singapore qualification scenarios with his team. Monday will mark the first time since the introduction of computerized rankings that a British man and woman are ranked in the Top 10 at the same time.
"She's obviously had a great year. I mean, to be in the Top 10 in the world is very, very difficult at anything I think," Murray told reporters in Beijing. "But she deserves to be there. She finished last year extremely well and kind of showed that she had the potential to get there with the wins that she was having. But it's not easy to do it over a 12-month period.
"She's done extremely well. Obviously made huge improvements from the beginning of last year. Yeah, hopefully she can keep going. Because everything is still new to her, she's going to be learning at quite a fast pace, too. It's exciting to see kind of how far she's going to be able to go."
Konta in the clutch.
After exchanging breaks to open the match, Konta broke Keys for a second time to earn a 4-2 lead before Keys eventually got it back to level. But on a sub-par serving day for the American, Konta pounced. She ran away with the first set tiebreak and that set the tone for the rest of the match, wherein Keys played the role of the chaser. Konta has now won her last nine tiebreak sets, posting a tally of 12-2 on the year.
"I really try to simplify things when it comes to tiebreaks," Konta told reporters. "Also I generally do my best not to overthink things either in terms of not to try to play any differently than the rest of the match. I definitely do my best to make it so that if I am going to lose the tiebreak, that my opponent has to beat me as much as possible."
The Road to Singapore goes through... Linz?
The China Open title would have sealed the Singapore deal for Madison Keys, who was not previously scheduled to play another tournament before the WTA Finals. Now she'll head to Linz in search of points to qualify for her first WTA Finals.
"The only reason is to qualify for Singapore," Keys said when asked to explain her decision to take a wildcard next week. Indoors, fast courts, seemed like a good idea."
Keys leaves Beijing disappointed, especially after her strong effort to beat both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Petra Kvitova en route to the semifinals. But she'll leave China with a new career-high ranking on Monday, either at No.7, or No.8 if Konta wins the title. It's a minor salve for the American as she heads to Austria.
"It kind of all sucks, yeah," Keys said, forcing a smile. "Losing is sucky. Then it being a semifinal makes it worse. Then not qualifying for Singapore, just icing on the cake today."
Photos courtesy of Getty Images.