Australian Open 2017: Johanna Konta and ‘the work between reality and dreams’
"I really love playing. I love learning. I just try to make the most out of every single day," explains the British number one
From the outside, it might have seemed that Johanna Konta’s run to the Australian Open semi-finals last year was little short of a bolt from the blue.
It may even come as a surprise to many in her adopted home of Great Britain that she is now considered to be a serious contender to leave Melbourne with silverware.
I really love playing. I love learning. I just try to make the most out of every single day
She arrives at the scene of her big 2010 breakthrough riding high with eight match-wins, a second career title, and one of the biggest scalps in women’s tennis.
After making the semi-finals in Shenzhen in the first week of 2017, Konta powered past three fellow Australian Open seeds without dropping a set to win in Sydney. That she dropped only six games to world No3 Agnieszka Radwanska also reveals something of the Briton’s form, especially as the Pole beat Konta in the final of one of the WTA’s biggest events in Beijing at the end of 2016.
As a result, Konta finds herself ranked at No9 in Melbourne, where this time last year she was barely inside the top 50, and so lined up with fellow elite players for the obligatory pre-tournament press conferences.
She is now 26 years old, and played her first ITF event more than a decade age, but the speed of her recent rise was on the media agenda. She took it in her stride.
“It’s one of those things that I think, from the outside, it may look really quick. It may look unexpected. But when you’re in the journey, when you’re in the process, it’s been years and years and years and years.
“So I guess I don’t quite see it with such an outside perspective. But I am extremely grateful and really am enjoying what I do. I really love playing. I love learning. I just try to make the most out of every single day.”
She is also smart enough not to get carried away by her current string of wins.
“I’m obviously very pleased with my performance last week… I was able to just keep getting better with every match that I played. I was pleased with that. Obviously to have beaten a player like Aga, I’m definitely pleased with the level I played.
“But we all know that it’s not a given. It doesn’t decide how you will do in the next event. I’m taking it as a positive but I’m also looking to work hard here and really try to do the best that I can.”
For her rise to the status of ‘Grand Slam contender’, although it has accelerated over the last couple of years, has been a story of passion for her sport, dedication to hard work, and the pursuit of one small improvement after another.
It is a story familiar in tennis the world over, and Konta’s began as a youngster in Sydney Australia, continued at a tennis academy in Spain, thence to Eastbourne, where her parents migrated when Konta was 14, and subsequently into the LTA system.
She progressed along the arduous road of small tournaments, meagre earnings, and qualifying for bigger events. By 2010, she had made real progress on the ITF circuit, and in 2012, when she was granted British citizenship, she was given a wild card into Wimbledon. Soon after that, she caught the eye of this correspondent during qualifying for the main draw at the US Open, where Konta would win her first Grand Slam match. For she had already the makings of a very fine player.
“[Konta] is currently ranked just outside the top 200… but judging from her performance in New York, there is plenty more to come from the young woman who stands just shy of 6ft. She has an attacking style, strong ground strokes and an eagerness to take control of rallies that, on occasion, saw her over-hitting… Stay tuned to the newest Brit on the block.”
More main-draw Major wins were slow to follow: Too often she lost concentration and matches from winning positions—until New York in 2015, where she crowned an impressive rise through the year with a fourth-round run. By the end of the year, she had added Simona Halep to a growing list of higher-ranked victims that included Garbine Muguruza and Ekaterina Makarova, and come Melbourne last year, the missing pieces of the Konta puzzle seemed to be in place. She explained it thus:
“It really comes down to a number of things. I think understanding why I was playing the sport and really finding my enjoyment within the sport, really separating that enjoyment from results is a huge factor. If you win and die with your wins and losses, it’s an incredibly tough lifestyle to live.”
The mental calm and resolve that transformed Konta from fine athlete into serial winner was bearing fruit, and the impact of sports psychologist Juan Coto and a fresh training set-up back in Spain deserved much credit. She began to focus less on the losses and the ‘what ifs’ and more on living—and enjoying—the here and now.
But as she said in Melbourne this weekend, she still has more to learn, still has further to travel. During the off-season Konta surprised many by switching coaches from Esteban Carril to Wim Fissette—coach in the past to Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka and Halep. Life-coach Coto died in November, but Konta drew on the resources she had learned from him to assert in a Guardian interview: “He’s still very much a part of everything that I do, everything that I will continue to do in this sport and career, and most likely beyond that as well.”
So what are her chances in Melbourne? Well if the draw plays out according to seedings, she has a mammoth task just to reach the semi-finals again.
Her first opponent, No70 Kirsten Flipkens, beat Konta in their only meeting last year and has been a Wimbledon semi-finalist.
Second up, Naomi Osaka, is a formidable and fast-improving teenager ranked 48, and reached the third round in all three Majors she played for the first time last year.
Then comes a first meeting with the highest-possible third-round adversary, No17 seed Caroline Wozniacki, a former No1 and Australian Open semi-finalist.
And in the fourth round, it could be former Australian finalist and winner of the WTA Championships last October, No6 seed Dominika Cibulkova.
All that before a possible first showdown with 22-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who has won six Australian Opens—just to reach the semis.
Yes, it’s tough at the top, yet even if the draw works against Konta this time, she will not be discouraged.
“It’s always been my dream to be at the top of the game—as a possibility, of course. But I think there’s a lot of work to be done between reality and dreams.
“My desire is to get better. My desire is to keep improving. Now whether that will result in many more titles or great performances, I don’t know: We’ll see. But as long as I feel that I’m doing everything that I can to move forward, then I know I’m giving my best shot.”
Konta begins her campaign in Melbourne on Tuesday.