By Ros Satar, at Roland Garros

  • “What’s a champion?”
  • Reporters get a chance to sit down with Dimitri Zavialoff, Johanna Konta’s coach, ahead of her quarter-final clash with last year’s finalist Sloane Stephens.
PARIS, FRANCE – Johanna Konta’s coach Dimitri Zavialoff faced the press as part of the excellent WTA campaign to allow access to coaches – and it was the highlight of the day.

 

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A quiet master

Even watching Dimitri Zavialoff when he sits on court watching his charge, British No. 1 Johanna Konta, he exudes a sense of calm. He calmly watches the activity, he does not come onto court if Konta is struggling or indeed, as she has been known to do, call a coach down when things are going well.

Zavialoff coached Stan Wawrinka and Timea Bacsinszky after realising at around 19 years of age that not quite making it at the Satellite level events and only reaching the last round of qualifying a couple of times, that being a player was not for him.

He was introduced to the job by Bob Brett and seems to have taken to it like a duck to water.

“If you like what you do and you like to learn, then it never stops. So it is an ongoing thing.”

He stops and pauses a lot before he answers questions, softly spoke, very articulate and gave us a fascinating insight into how Konta has turned her fortunes around. And the feeling is very much that she has been instrumental in the upswing.

From the outset, with the inevitable comparison of her previous record on the terre battue of Paris, to her remarkable run this clay court season taking in an International level and a premier mandatory level final on the dirt, before embarking on a four-match winning spree.

He said: “I think she was always a good player. That’s what I keep telling her. I knew something would happen since I started working with her and whether it will happen on clay or after, I didn’t know but I was kind of waiting when it would happen, and it did happen on clay so that’s it.”

Johanna Konta in Pre-Tournament Press, Roland Garros 2019

Johanna Konta in Pre-Tournament Press, Roland Garros 2019 | Jimmie48 Tennis Photography

This quiet pragmatism is the theme that continues throughout the interview, as he explained why he is a firm believer in not utilising the (sometimes controversial) on-court coaching on the WTA tour events.

He said: “I did work five years with Timea Bacsinszky before and I never went on court and I think I have my own idea what confidence is. It’s a way to show the player I’m confident in what she will do. And no matter if she does bad choices or good choices, I’m supporting it and behind it. And also, I think when a decision from a player comes from him or her, it is more valuable to the player than if it’s reproducing something that’s someone’s telling, or even something from the past.

“So, I really like the player to make all choices and also it’s so difficult to know how a player is during a match. I prefer to the long-term idea, in helping in some practice and then maybe the player will use what we’re trying to do, or not. But in the case of Jo, her own decisions are the best.”

“I think that with this she feels comfortable with that at the moment and she likes it. And she obviously is a very good player. I would even say a fantastic player, and she shows it now. She can express it. I think she did in the past but also from one year to another, the evolution is there as a person, so everything altogether.”

 

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“What is a champion for you?”

The British press is not alone within the underground media centre this year willing their charges on to glory. The pressure that players are put under is evident, day-in day-out especially for the favourites.

Konta came in for some very unfair criticism from some of the British press pack last year after another first round exit, and when she dug her heels in and hit back, found herself the target of even more criticism.

Don’t get me wrong – dealing with the press is part and parcel of the job. Players might not like it, but unfortunately, they will have to come into press after tough losses and will get questions that rile them.

Johanna Konta, Wimbledon 2017

Photo by Ella Ling/BPI/REX/Shutterstock | Johanna Konta Wimbledon 2017, Day 10

However, let’s not forget that Konta rose to No. 4 in the world after reaching the Wimbledon semi-final. She has been breaking all kinds of British records set many years ago, and yet that appears to still not be enough? What more should she do? Well, win a Slam, of course.

When asked if she had it in her to win the ultimate in trophies, Zavialoff replied: ‘What do you think? What do you think I think? (laughter). What I’d like to say is I can’t tell a player, or promise a player, this player will win a Grand Slam. What I know is that she will be tough to beat. So, if anyone from the other players manage to do that – good for them. And if not, then…

“She has proven it already, no? So, what is a champion for you? For me she is a champion, definitely. So, she already has it.”

There is no doubt he continues to be impressed with Konta’s own philosophy. The pair had a trial at the end of the 2018 season in Moscow, where she went on to reach the semi-final.

He continued: “It will end, so maybe with the trophy or not. So we just take it like this, and I like how she’s committed to what she’s doing. I’m not surprised – it’s first impression that I had for her, and I like it. It’s the thing that most champions in tennis have.”

Konta and Stephens will play in the quarter-finals of Roland Garros on Tuesday, on Court Philippe Chatrier at 2pm (1pm BST).

 

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