By Ros Satar, in Melbourne

  • The British No. 1 is starting 2018 anew – new coach, new mindset, and fast becoming a solid spokeswoman for the WTA
  • No Serena Williams should be a chance to celebrate the depth on tour
  • A personal reflection on the changes in Konta over the years since her rise to the top flight
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – In the face of one of the most wide open Slam fields in a while, Johanna Konta looked to spin the absence of last year’s champion Serena Williams as a positive strike for the depth of women’s tennis.

 

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In what is fast becoming one of the more enjoyable press encounters we have to face at the start of a long fortnight of Slam coverage, a cheerful and almost rejuvenated Johanna Konta has had a solid start to the year.  Having arrested a five-match losing streak at the end of the year with a couple of hard fought wins, Konta comes in with some solid match practice under her belt, and thankfully clear of the injury worries of Brisbane.

Johanna Konta retires from the Brisbane International quarter-final, 2018

Photo by Mike Frey/BPI/REX/Shutterstock | Johanna Konta retires from the Brisbane International quarter-final, 2018

“I’m trying actually not to think too much back on how I did here last year or how I was even feeling here last year. I’m coming into this year with slightly different challenges than I was end of last year.

“I feel very actually conscious of really appreciating being back and playing, and almost being grateful for the challenges that I have now. I’m also working through the challenges that I faced end of last year, trying to really just get back in the match routine of things, trying to get back into the level I want to be playing consistently.

“That can take time, that does take time, but I’m hoping that I can play my way into it, yeah, try to stay here as long as I can.”

Having seen Konta blossom with the confidence that her position as part of the World’s Top Ten, she is fast becoming one of the more thoughtful responders to some of the more challenging questions that face the tour. Following Billie Jean King’s statement on the ongoing concern around the comments of Margaret Court, she offered a considered answer.

“In terms of scheduling, I will play wherever I’m scheduled. That’s out of my control. I will look to be prepared for whatever court I’m playing on.

“But respect to the controversy that’s surrounding that, I don’t agree with what Margaret Court said. However, she’s entitled to her own opinion. I think it’s
unfortunate that this whole thing has even occurred, because it does overshadow why her name is on the court.

“It’s not because of her beliefs, it’s because of her achievements in the sport. It’s unfortunate it’s kind of meshed together when they’re actually quite separate.”

A wide open field with no Serena should be seen as strength in depth

Johanna Konta Western & Southern Open, WTA Cincinnati 2017 (c) Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

With an ongoing battle for the World No. 1, and with defending champion Serena Williams not being quite ready to return to competition at the highest level, this field is possibly one of the most open Slams, but Konta took the chance to flip the question.

“Could we work on rephrasing that question? Let’s work on this together (smiling). Yeah, I mean, the championships, is open in the sense there’s so many great players. The depth in women’s tennis I really do believe in the last few years has gotten so strong.

“You just see it in every round, in tournaments, in slams. There’s so many massive first rounds, tough second rounds. There’s no straight sailing to the quarters or semis any more. It doesn’t exist.

“That’s not specific to a Grand Slam. That’s the same in Brisbane. I played Madison Keys first round. Even Sydney I played Agnieszka [Radwanska]. It’s exciting for the fans that bought tickets. They know when they’re coming, whatever day they bought tickets, there’s going to be great matches on.

“I think that’s exciting. That’s what they pay their money for: to see an entertaining game of tennis. I think we are providing this entertainment.”

 

The change in Konta – A personal observation

Johanna Konta, Western & Southern Open, WTA Cincinnati, 2017

Johanna Konta of Great Britain talks to the press during Media Day at the 2017 Western & Southern Open WTA Premier 5 tennis tournament

Having interviewed her back in Stuttgart 2014 where she edged into the draw as a lucky loser, to watching her keep the press at bay with a run at Eastbourne in 2015 that took her to the Eastbourne quarter-finals – her guarded responses perhaps were more frustrating than enlightening.

For my money, one of the most remarkable changes came after she lost to Caroline Garcia in Indian Wells last year. She came into a small interview room and gave perhaps the most honest answers after a match where nothing seemed to work.

It surprised a few of us because for so long we were used to (and still get, to some degree) a positive spin on even the most devasting losses. As her profile has grown, and as she has learned to manage the demands on her time, she has opened up a little to the press – and by the time the Cincinnati all-access rolled around, it was like a chat with friends (as much as a press conference can be)!

The more cerebral players can be the most challenging, or as in the case of Andrea Petkovic, they can be the most fun to talk to. Konta has the measure of the press – she will walk in with a cheery ‘hello’ but she can be very quick to put them in their place.

When asked about having lost the Nottingham final to an in-form Donna Vekic, and then losing in grass to Coco Vandeweghe, she snapped back that just because she is No. 7 in the world, she is not entitled to win every match she plays. It demonstrated an emotional response and a little ‘fire in the belly’.

Good advice, given the downturn in her form towards the end of the year, but as she admitted herself – she is hopfully growing each year with each new experience.

“I think besides the physical struggles I was having with my foot, which definitely hindered my ability to stay as present and as focused as I wanted to on court because of the pain I was having, the worries, and everything, that all kind of snowballed and accumulated.

“Then it was also just a case of my tolerance as a person. I kind of hit a bit of a wall. I kind of just wasn’t able to roll with the punches really any more. It was basically just a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t quite find that head space that you need to find when you’re being tested day in, day out, or trying to be at an event.

“I couldn’t quite find that head space that I wanted. Therefore, it just shows the margins are so small in these events. There’s really not much in it on who comes through and who doesn’t.”

Konta will play Madison Brengle in the first round of the Australian Open.

 

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