By Ros Satar

  • Britwatch Sports sits down with Michael Joyce, former coach to Maria Sharapova, Victoria Azarenka, and now British No. 1 Johanna Konta
  • Exclusive look at how the coaching relationship has developed as Konta’s confidence is on the rise
CINCINNATI, USA – At the Western & Southern Open we sat down with Michael Joyce, coach of Johanna Konta, in what has been a challenging year for the British No. 1

 

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It has been a couple of years since Johanna Konta catapulted up the rankings after a stand-out year in 2016, reaching the Australian Open semi-final, repeating that run at Wimbledon 2017 along with capturing the Miami title. Her time with Wim Fissette was perhaps her most successful yet, but after reaching the Wimbledon final four last year, Konta’s form dipped dramatically, ending the year with a run of opening defeats.

So much so, she quipped in Australia that her win at the season exhibition opener in Thailand had meant a lot to her, bur more so her appointment of Michael Joyce to her team. He was a former player, and was with Maria Sharapova from 2004 to 2011, and with Victoria Azarenka at the start of her return from maternity leave before joining Konta’s team.

Johanna Konta speaking with Michael Joyce in the first round of the Sydney International, 2018

Johanna Konta speaking with Michael Joyce in the first round of the Sydney International, 2018 | (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Konta spoke highly of having his player’s perspective even at the start of the year, and he elaborated how that has been part of a base for this coaching relationship:

“I played for a long time obviously and then even when I played, I learned a lot from other players. I always felt that when I learned from other players it helped me a lot because they understood a lot – like the situations I was in and a lot of the stuff that I was going through.

“I mean with somebody like Jo who’s already had success, you’re not going to change her technique at this age. You’re not going to make a lot of changes to her game, it’s more like trying to bring out her best game as much as possible. Plus trying to keep them motivated and [enjoyment].

“It’s not like working with a 15 or 16-year-old player who’s learning. A lot of her routines and stuff have obviously worked in the past. You want to continue to do that. I think as a player I understand that, and I understand a lot of the thought process and different things as a player, and the experiences of good players too.”

Konta always comes across as a decisive person – she knows how much she wants to share with the outside world, and the scene was set early by the pair.

“We have similar philosophies on day one of what we’d like to accomplish and going forward and it was important that we obviously could get along and that we respected each other, which we do. Those are the most important things I think, especially at the beginning of a coaching relationship.”

 

‘Getting used to being at the top’

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

Konta has had a rough ride in the more traditional press, something that had not gone unnoticed by Joyce, who recognised that in previous protégées had experienced that level of intense media scrutiny at a far earlier age.

“Jo’s a private person for the most part. She’s a great girl. She’s very smart, she’s articulate. She just happens to be a tennis pro who’s very successful.

“I think it’s tough – I think it’s a little bit different for her too, because somebody like Maria [Sharapova], Vika [Azarenka], Serena – they’re used to this kind of attention at a very young age. Even before they even made it, per se, they’re kind of in the public eye. I think they know no different.

“I think Jo spent a lot of years in the challengers and she worked her way up, worked really hard and she didn’t get a lot of that attention for a really long time. Everything that has come to her came to her in the last few years. So, she’s probably going through some of the stuff that some of the other girls were going through at 17 and 18.

“I know Maria felt pressure – I don’t think she’s feeling more pressure than somebody else, I think it’s just getting used to being at the top, being in the public eye.”

A case in point was how many times Konta played Wimbledon and breezed in and out of the forst round with people barely batting an eyelid. Konta went out in the first round four times at Wimbledon, before finally winning a round in her breakout year of 2016, and even then she went out in the second round that year before her semi-final run in 2017.

Joyce said: “I actually saw this year her record at Wimbledon and I was like ‘jeez’. That’s rare in the sport to see that. In the men it happens a little bit more, in the women you don’t see too many women at 25 breaking the top ten.

“I think some of that stuff – I think overall, she handles it pretty good. She tries to give honest answers and so forth, but I think just like anybody, it’s just her dealing with it. I think life’s all about learning and experiences, and so I think moving forward it just will get easier and easier.”

 

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Enjoyment and confidence

Heather Watson and Johanna Konta representing GB in the Fed Cup

Heather Watson and Johanna Konta representing GB in the Fed Cup | (Photo by Getty Images for LTA)

One thing that has been evident is the improvement in her game this year. Her clay court run might have been the catalyst for the tension between Konta and the more traditional forms of British press, but on paper it was actually her best all-around performance. And it is not like she cannot play on the stuff – several of her ITF titles came on the dirt.

We saw the stirrings of a turnaround, and her consistency through the hard courts is in part down to Joyce helping instil some enjoyment in her once more, and certain aspects of her game (which admittedly saw people diving for cover behind sofas), namely volleying, improve considerably with the introduction of more doubles to her schedule.

“She loves playing doubles. I’m a big advocate of doubles. I just think it’s great for your game. I think if you especially play with the intention of practice and for fun. I don’t think it’s important that she volleys incredible, (sic) but I think she neds to be confident up there because I think it helps the rest of game.

“When she’s moving forward, when she’s playing aggressive, when she’s looking to take time away, all those things that make her play well – if you feel a little bit more comfortable at the net you’re more apt to do it.

“And she has good instincts round the net, just sometimes a little tight, her hands, so the more she can play doubles and put herself in that situation, it can only make it better.”

However, she will be focussing on her singles at the US Open, and as for Wimbledon, she will not have the doubles in her scheduling too.

Joyce explained: “You do have the day off but then going out to the site all day and sitting around, waiting to play doubles – I don’t think it’s worth it. But I think at these tournaments a lot of times it helps to get a doubles match before you pay singles sometimes.

“With Maria, [she] didn’t play doubles that often. I would have liked her to have actually played a little bit more, but it was more because of the timing of sitting around at the site and all that kind of stuff. So, I think she’s going to keep playing, we’re just going to pick and choose where we think it’s best.”

 

Support structure

Along with the other solitary Brit journalist in Madrid, we were fortunate to interview Konta after a late finish where she happily introduced us to both Joyce, and boyfriend Jackson Wade. He has become a firm fixture in the players’ box over the US hard court season – so how much does that support structure help while on the road?

Joyce said: “Jackson’s a great guy, which makes my job easier too. [We] have a team that for the most part gets along, and I think we’re all good people. That can only help a player. Ultimately you can say this about any player, especially the women. If they’re not happy they’re not going to do that well. I mean at some point something’s going to happen.

“I feel like she’s in a pretty good place. I feel that she’s happy. She has a good support team and we all get along well, and I think that can only help her.”

But the real burning question is… can Konta bake as well as she makes out?

“Pretty good! I’ve had a few things. I had my birthday – she made me peanut butter cookies, organic, she said, so I ate all of them. Work in progress but pretty good.”

Konta will face No. 6 seed Caroline Garcia in the first round of the US Open, when the bottom half of the draw plays on Tuesday.

 

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