Johanna Konta’s path to the semi-finals of the Australian Open is blocked by a woman who, in the words of the British number one, is on an even “more incredible journey” than she is.
Konta will be the first British woman to contest a Grand Slam quarter-final for 32 years when she takes on Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai on Rod Laver Arena from 01:30 GMT on Wednesday.
Having beaten seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams in straight sets in the opening round, Konta held her nerve over three hours and four minutes to beat Ekaterina Makarova 8-6 in the deciding set of their fourth-round match.
This time last year, with a ranking of 144, Konta lost in straight sets in the first round of qualifying in Melbourne. The following month took her to Arizona and California, where she earned just $1,046 (£737) in two tournaments on the second-tier ITF circuit.
Victory over Zhang would take her into the world top 30.
The work she has done with mental coach Juan Coto has been well documented, but the 24-year-old has also made some technical adjustments to her game.
“She’s getting the very best out of what was always a really great ball-striking game,” said GB’s Fed Cup captain Judy Murray.
“I think her serve is excellent: it’s one of the best in the girls’ game. And her cross-court backhand, when she steps inside the court, is a phenomenal put-away shot.
“Her backhand was always a much more solid shot than her forehand. When she got uptight in matches, it tended to be the forehand side that broke down, but it doesn’t do that now. She has always hit the ball very well and very hard but she’s getting the best out of herself now because she’s much more emotionally stable.
“I think top 20 at the end of the year is a realistic goal and I think she can go further than that in the long term.”
Her next opponent Zhang was a top-30 player once. She knows what it is like to win a title on the WTA Tour, and is a serial winner on the ITF circuit. And yet, until this fortnight, she had lost all 14 Grand Slam matches she had contested.
It was an unenviable record – the worst of any player currently inside the top 300. So bad, in fact, that had she not won a tournament in Tokyo at the end of last year, she might have retired.
Zhang decided to have one more go at breaking her Grand Slam duck, but her apprehension grew as the draw for the Australian Open approached.
It was no surprise to her when she was paired with second seed Simona Halep in round one.
“Before the draw, I already guessed I would play Halep, because all the time I play the top players,” the 27-year-old told BBC Sport.
But, for once, a bad draw was not followed by a Grand Slam defeat. In the first Tuesday night session on Margaret Court Arena, the qualifier ranked 133 in the world won 6-4 6-3.
“I’m so lucky I didn’t finish last year,” she continued.
“I like tennis. I like this tour. I like everybody, but after this tournament I need a long break because I have already played seven matches. I don’t want to play too much. I want some more time for my life.”
The grind of life on tour, and the relentless pressure of qualifying, nearly wore Zhang down. Melbourne could still prove to be her Grand Slam swansong, and she is keen to investigate the possibility of opening a coffee bar – in an undisclosed location.
Konta is less than two and a half years Zhang’s junior, but her career seems to be just beginning.
She was practising in the heat on Tuesday on the court also favoured by Maria Sharapova and Novak Djokovic, and is on track to be seeded for the second Grand Slam of the year at Roland Garros.
Not that she could ever be accused of looking ahead.
“Eat, sleep, repeat,” is her mantra as she prepares for an Australian Open quarter-final that seemed totally inconceivable just 12 months ago.
Keep calm, Konta
Fellow Briton Andy Murray also plays in the quarter-finals in Melbourne on Wednesday, against veteran Spaniard David Ferrer.
The 28-year-old Scot offered some advice for Konta as she aims to make the last four.
“She’s just got to keep doing what she’s doing. Keep her head down, keep working hard, stay calm,” said Murray, who has reached the final four times.
“She’s doing great. To back up what she was doing at the end of last year was fantastic.
“She’s clearly stayed pretty calm, had some excellent wins here against very tough opponents, high-ranked opponents, and experienced ones. She’s doing really, really well.”