In recent years, women’s tennis has been dominated by star names such as Serena Williams, Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova. With power and precision they have won everything there is to win with 35 Grand Slam singles titles between them as of April 2017. During this period of dominance, the Brits have had to take a backseat whilst they wait for another Virginia Wade or Sue Barker to emerge. As 2017 marks 40 years since a British woman last won a Grand Slam singles title, we decided to look at Johanna Konta, the nation’s strongest hope of ending that drought.
Born to Hungarian parents in Australia there are two other countries who may try to claim her as their representative. Konta moved to the UK as a teenager and settled in Eastbourne, a town that she still calls home and whenever the question of her nationality arises, she is always quick to confirm that she is British. When her citizenship was officially confirmed in May 2012 she was ranked outside the top 200 in the world but had only just turned 21 years of age. It was the beginning of what has started to unfold as a fantastic story for British tennis.
Overshadowed by the emergence of Heather Watson and Laura Robson, Konta’s results went rather unnoticed during the early stages of her career as a British citizen. After some encouraging performances, including coming through qualifying and to the second round of the US Open, Konta finished 2012 ranked just outside of the top 150. She was quickly starting to improve but was still flying under the radar of the British media.
Two years on, after a few ups and downs, Konta ended 2014 ranked in a very similar position to where she had ended 2012. Despite her ranking not improving too much during that time, 2014 did prove to be the eventual turning point for her game. After a coaching change in August 2014, she then decided to receive help from mental coach, Juan Coto, later that year. It is this relationship that the media and even Konta herself, have said was the mitigating factor in helping to turn her fortunes around.
By mid-2015, Konta was already starting to reap the rewards of working with Coto and found herself frequently beating players ranked higher than herself. During the grass court season that year she defeated players such as Monica Puig, Garbine Muguruza and Ekaterina Makarova, despite still being ranked some way off the top 100. With back to back ITF titles in Canada and a superb run to the fourth round of the US Open, where she beat Muguruza for the second time in three months, Konta found herself catapulted into the top 100. Further wins that year over Simona Halep, Victoria Azarenka and Andrea Petkovic saw her end the year ranked 47 in the world, an improvement of 103 places in just 12 months.
Since then the story has been very well documented. A semi-final appearance at the Australian Open in 2016 where she lost to the eventual champion Angelique Kerber saw her reputation take a huge leap forward but her consistency on the WTA Tour has also been highly admirable. Defeating the top two seeds, Venus Williams and Dominika Cibulkova, on her way to her first WTA title at the Premier event in Stanford was quickly followed up with a runner up position in the China Open. That performance in Beijing made her seem like a great candidate to win the Australian Open in 2017.
Not even half way through 2017 and Konta has already added the Premier event in Sydney to her trophy cabinet and even picked up her first Premier Mandatory title with victory in Miami. The big name scalps are quickly racking up as Agnieszka Radwanksa and Caroline Wozniacki were defeated in her two finals of 2017 so far. Despite losing in the quarter finals at the 2017 Australian Open to Serena Williams, you always felt that Serena would be the only player that could defeat her as Konta had not dropped a single set up until that point.
The landscape of the women’s game has changed a little lately and it now looks wide open. As Konta has never been beyond the first round at Roland Garros, it would be a little much to expect her to win in France. Wimbledon will prove to be a challenge but with Serena out of the frame, Kvitova recovering from an attack and the years catching up with Venus, it could be all to play for. I just hope the home crowd and the media get behind her in the way that they do with Andy Murray.
What strikes myself, and probably others, as odd is the relative lack of fame that Johanna Konta seems to have in Britain. As one of the ten best tennis players in the world, I wonder how many people would recognise her if they walked past her in the street. Of course, tennis is a global game and so Konta is often competing in different countries around the world with her matches rarely shown on terrestrial TV. Perhaps the lack of publicity from the British press is a good thing and enables her to play without pressure. We all remember how much expectation was placed on Tim Henman whenever Wimbledon came around and Konta has already matched Henman’s best performance at a Grand Slam as a semi-finalist herself.
Konta has all the tools required to be a Grand Slam champion, there is no doubting that. She has beaten the big players, she has won big events and more importantly, she has the game for it. Her serve is one of the best on the WTA Tour and she has a fantastic knack for keeping the ball incredibly flat when playing from the baseline. She is athletic and aswell as possessing the power that is required, she can also work the angles to devastating effect in the way that someone like Radwanska can. With the mental side of the game seemingly conquered too, there really is no telling how far she can go but her goal is clear and well stated. She wants to be the best in the world.
The death of her mental coach was tragic and has no doubt hit her hard but what she learnt from him in the two years they had together has transformed her career and will not be forgotten. Winning the Miami Open was the biggest achievement by a female British tennis player since Virginia Wade won Wimbledon in 1977 and at just 25 years of age, Konta is arguably only just approaching her prime.
She may never win Wimbledon as her favourite surface is the hard courts and so the Australian and US Opens would be the more likely candidates for success. If she were to win one, or even both, of those then I sincerely hope that the media, and indeed the British public, recognise it as the achievement that it is. We put a premium on Wimbledon in the UK but it could be argued that the conditions in the US and Australia are tougher with the heat and also the crowd not being on your side. I often feel that Heather Watson’s triumph at the junior US Open was not held in as high regard as Laura Robson’s junior Wimbledon win but that is a discussion for another day. Will Konta ever be the world number one? She certainly has all the attributes to make it happen and that path needs to begin with a strong grass season in 2017. She will also need to improve on clay and enjoy better results at the French Open.
In Johanna Konta, the UK have someone that young tennis players, not just girls but the boys too, can look up to. She has battled her way up the rankings, she has moved her training base to wherever it needs to be in order to get the best out of herself and she has made good coaching choices. Her determination to succeed is there for all to see and is something that a few other British players would do well to learn. On her day she can beat anyone and I wouldn’t be surprised if within the next 12 months, the media are talking about a female British Grand Slam singles champion.
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