Australian Open 2016: Murray, Konta through, UK’s best showing since 1977

The Brits are coming at the Australian Open. Or rather they are still here.

And that means more than Andy Murray.

After Britain won the Davis Cup title last December for the first time since 1936, led almost singlehandedly by the world No. 2, there’s a British man and woman in the semifinals at the same grand slam for the first time since 1977.

If that’s not enough to bring joy to British tennis fans, Murray’s older brother Jamie landed in the semifinals in doubles to make for an unprecedented brotherly achievement at the Australian Open.

“It’s nice for Andy to have someone else that everyone is talking about,” Jo Durie, the last elite British women’s pro, told CNN. “And it’s just, with the Davis Cup win … let’s celebrate.”

Murray is a two-time grand slam champion and longtime member of the “Big Four,” so he was always destined to appear in the latter stages of the year’s first major.

But Johanna Konta?

Great British hope?

She may not be a Cinderella story in the mold of the player she beat 6-4 6-1 Wednesday to make the semifinals, Zhang Shuai, but the 24-year-old who holds three passports has come out of nowhere to emerge on the big stage.

This while the player who two years ago carried the hopes of British women’s tennis, Laura Robson, continues to recover from a serious wrist injury.

“It’s pretty good for us to have people competing in almost all of the competitions,” Murray told reporters. “It’s been a good Australian Open so far. Hopefully we can keep it going.”

Konta on Thursday tangles with another unexpected player, Angelique Kerber, who pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament since Rafael Nadal exited in the first round by ousting the seemingly impregnable Victoria Azarenka 6-3 7-5.

Murray followed the women’s action at Rod Laver Arena by defeating Spanish veteran David Ferrer 6-3 6-7 (5-7) 6-2 6-3 in a bruising tussle that began under the clouds but ended with the roof closed. Canada’s big-serving Milos Raonic is Murray’s challenger Thursday after overcoming French showman Gael Monfils 6-3 3-6 6-3 6-4.

Konta became the first British woman to make a grand slam semifinal since Durie in 1983.

The 24-year-old began 2015 outside the top 140 but a 16-match winning streak last year prior to the U.S. Open elevated her ranking — and confidence.

“She’s always had the tennis,” said Durie, an analyst with Eurosport. “She’s always had the strokes. And nice serve. But she was never really mentally able to hold it together. She was a little brittle.

“The change in her has just been awesome. Out there on court she looks like she belongs. She keeps calm, she keeps confident.”

The 47th-ranked Konta stunned eighth seed Venus Williams in the first round and then outlasted 2015 semifinalist Ekaterina Makarova 4-6 6-4 8-6 in the third round.

She is a fine example of tennis’ global nature, holding Australian, Hungarian and British passports.

No wonder she joked: “I mean, I’m pretty much the female version of Jason Bourne,” she said, referring to the central character in the Bourne movie series.

A fatigued Zhang wasn’t overly displeased at losing. For one she is friends with Konta and the two shared an embrace at the net.

Secondly, Zhang felt like she had won a grand slam already after prevailing in seven matches, three in qualifying.

Her tale will no doubt linger, having wept after upsetting world No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round to end an exasperating 0-for-14 skid in grand slams.

Azarenka crashes out

An Azarenka-Serena Williams final was a popular pick among tournament prognosticators.

Williams is the 21-time grand slam winner who captured three majors last year.

Meanwhile Azarenka was the hottest player in tennis, having crushed everyone in her way en route to the title at a warmup event in Brisbane in early January.

Azarenka, too, hadn’t come close to conceding a set through four rounds in Melbourne. Her baseline power and ability to create angles was simply too much for her opponents.

But first up on Wednesday, the possibility of that finale evaporated as Azarenka was bettered by the German who idolized Steffi Graf.

If Williams wins the title Saturday, she will tie Graf for the Open Era record in majors; Kerber will probably be the one trying to stop her if ranking is any indication.

Even though on paper Kerber was the favourite as the seventh seed and Azarenka came in at 14th, it couldn’t be termed anything other than a huge upset. Thus maybe Konta shouldn’t be discounted.

Aside from Azarenka’s form, the two-time Australian Open champion routed Kerber in the Brisbane final 6-3 6-1 to boost her record against the lefty to 6-0.

“The key from this match was that I was playing and I won the match,” Kerber told reporters. “She didn’t lose it. I won it.”

Azarenka disagreed with that assessment.

Kerber raced to a 4-0 lead but Azarenka pulled to 4-3.

In the most pivotal game of the opener, Kerber withstood the Azarenka charge by saving two break points in a five-deuce game.

Undaunted it was Azarenka who surged in the second, building a 5-2 advantage. Yet she squandered five set points, three while serving at 5-2, 40-0 and two more at 5-4.

“My footwork didn’t have enough, my shots didn’t have enough, I felt I did a little bit too many unforced errors in the key moments,” Azarenka told reporters. “I created a lot of opportunities but then I was not enough on my opportunities.”

Striking unforced errors against Kerber isn’t unusual. The 28-year-old is one of the top movers in the game, making opponents hit one ball after another.

But she is trying to become more aggressive and judging by the statistics it’s working. Kerber delivered 31 winners, making only 16 unforced errors.

“If you just play defense against good players it’s not enough,” Azarenka’s affable coach, Torben Beltz, told a pair of reporters.

“You have to be aggressive. She has to try to win the match and not (have) the opponent lose it.

“I think that’s what she did today. The last two, three weeks she also did it. I think it’s good progress. If she keeps going like this and plays aggressive, I think she can do good stuff.”

Kerber got some advice from countrywoman Graf last year but a three-week off-season training block in Poland — she has Polish roots — has proved to be just as, if not more, beneficial.

Kerber is also beefing up her serve, mixing up a slice with more oomph.

Beltz said that on Tuesday, he and Kerber watched the Brisbane final to draw up tactics. Kerber’s execution was perfect.

Murray through

When Murray, a four-time finalist at the Australian Open, dropped the second set to Ferrer, the drama escalated.

Murray was never really in trouble again, mind you, registering early breaks in the third and fourth sets.

He has coped admirably in the face of adversity; his father-in-law Nigel Sears collapsed on court on Saturday as Murray played on another court.

Apart from the psychological trauma, his post-match routine was altered. Murray, whose wife and Sears’ daughter is eight months pregnant, admitted to almost pulling out of his fourth-round clash with Bernard Tomic.

Raonic shouldn’t be underestimated. He has yet to lose in 2016 and judging by Wednesday, is hitting his backhand — his weakest shot — better than ever. His headband, orange shoes and socks make him difficult to miss. Raonic also sports a mouth guard to prevent him from grinding his teeth. He feels it aids his posture.

The other men’s semifinal, on Thursday, is a blockbuster between top-ranked Novak Djokovic and 17-time grand slam winner Roger Federer. The series is tied 22-22, though Djokovic — aiming for a sixth title in Melbourne — has triumphed in their last three matches at majors.

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