Cheerful Johanna Konta enjoys first Rome win to join Heather Watson in Round 2
Johanna Konta's investment in a sports psychologist appears to be bearing fruit at every turn
The day after British No2 Heather Watson scored a fine victory over No14 seed and home favourite Sara Errani, the top-ranked British woman, No23 Johanna Konta, joined her in the second round of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia.
Watson’s was an altogether tougher encounter, not least because of Errani’s clay court credentials: She is a former French Open finalist. Watson, ranked 55, had to get into the main draw the hard way via two qualifying rounds, both of which, like her Errani encounter, required three sets. No wonder she was so upbeat about her win, and relishing her next match against Barbora Strycova, ranked 36 and a very contrasting player:
“I’m very pleased with today, and in the conditions and her being at home on the clay court, it’s definitely very satisfying. She’s a tough opponent, great player. Yeah, happy!
“But [Barbora’s] a toughie, and I think she’s got great variety in her game. She can come to the net… and she’s a good fighter. That would be a really tough match on the clay.”
Konta, however, sailed into the second round with much less delay, but sailed into press afterwards with a quick apology for the delay: She needed to have her lunch first!
Clay has never been the Eastbourne-based woman’s most successful surface. Her surge up the rankings to within touching distance of the top 20 after starting the year ranked 47 came courtesy of a break-through performance at the Australian Open, a semi-final run.
However it was on her home turf last year, which she began ranked 150, that her talent hit the headlines first at home during the grass season and then more widely at the US Open.
At Eastbourne, she beat No4 seed Ekaterina Makarova and then No14 seed Garbine Muguruza to reach the quarter-finals.
Back to back ITF titles in North America heralded a fourth-round run in New York, having come through three qualifying rounds and through Muguruza followed by No18 seed Andrea Petkovic.
But big wins on clay have been harder to come by, give or take qualifying for the French Open for the first time last year. Ahead of Rome, where she is debuting in the main draw, she lost in the first round of Stuttgart and retired ill in her first match in Madrid. So this was an important first for her, and the pleasure was written all over her face.
“It was quite windy out there, and the conditions here are quite heavy. Just very happy to have dealt with the cards that were given to me. Coming through some of the close games out there I think definitely helped my momentum. Yeah, happy to be coming back tomorrow.”
But what about playing on clay compared with hard or grass courts?
“I enjoy it. I think it’s quite a lot of fun, actually. It’s different than any other surface. I mean, I think I do slide a little bit on the hard here and there but obviously nothing like the clay. I’m enjoying it for all the things that it brings to the game.
“I definitely feel that the more opportunities I’m able to create for myself to play matches on here, the more comfortable things will feel.”
Konta is an articulate, smart woman, one who confronted the nerves that so often got the better of her big, rangy game at tense moments by taking on a sports psychologist to help her ‘live in the moment’. It has borne fruit.
But she clearly revels in new experiences as much as new challenges.
“I don’t have a favourite surface. I have always said so, and I maintain that. I think these are new experiences for me. I have never played Madrid before and I have never played here before. I’m definitely accumulating new experiences.
“On the clay court, I think I definitely need to put in a lot more hours on the surface. I definitely put in a lot of hours on the hard courts in these last six, eight, ten months.
“Yeah, hopefully the work I put in now will also translate into not just next year this time but also the next surfaces that I play on. I think there is a lot of crossover no matter what surface we are playing on.”
Tomorrow, if she is to reach Round 3 in a tough section that holds Victoria Azarenka, Simona Halep and Serena Williams, she will battle not just a higher ranked player, No7 seed Roberta Vinci, but another of Italy’s favourite daughters who thrilled her fans with her unexpected run to the final of the US Open last year—a fairytale adventure in which she was beaten by now-retired compatriot Flavia Pennetta.
The match will undoubtedly be played on one of the Foro Italico’s show courts, either the beautiful centre court or the old marble basin of Pietrangeli, overlooked by the stadium’s famous sporting statues.
“If we are on Centre Court, that would be a great experience, but whatever court we’re going to be on, I’m sure there will be a great crowd turning up. That will be good. It will be like a football match… Just to have a crowd, whether it’s for you or against you, it doesn’t really matter. Just to have that noise, that energy, I think that’s the most exciting as a player.”
And if they should play in the Pietrangeli colosseum: “I will feel like a gladiator.”
Konta is, it seems, a glass-half-full kind of woman: that investment in a sports psychologist is bearing fruit at every turn.