By Matt Roberts
British sporting transformations are not infrequent. In a 13th month period, Leicester City went from relegation safe-bets to Premier League champions; Chris Froome, now a three-time Tour de France victor, has left behind the days of being Sir Bradley Wiggins’ understudy; with every passing day, Chris Woakes is confirming his evolution from fringe player to match winner for England’s test side.
To that list, we can add Johanna Konta, Britain’s best female tennis player for 30 years. Her last twelve months have been nothing short of remarkable and on Sunday she was rewarded with her first ever title by beating seven-time major champion Venus Williams 7-5 5-7 6-2 in Stanford.
Playing with a poise and calm that has replaced her tense temperament as her trademark, Konta impressively dispatched the in-form Dominika Cibulkova 6-4 6-2 in the semi-final before overcoming Williams. Victory moves Konta to 14th in the world and ninth in the race to the WTA Finals in Singapore. She’s the first Brit since 1977 to win the Stanford Classic – a prestigious Premier event with an honours board containing names like Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Monica Seles and Serena Williams.
Titles for British female tennis players are hardly common. In fact, from Sara Gomer’s Northern California Open win to Heather Watson’s Osaka win in 2012, there was a 24-year drought. While Watson has since picked up titles in Hobart and Monterrey, Konta’s achievements are on a level not reached by British women since Jo Durie in the mid-80s. And the honest truth is that nobody saw it coming.
Konta, perennially fragile and consumed with nerves whenever she could sense the finish line, began her ascent at Eastbourne last year, beating World No.8 Ekaterina Makarova for the loss of six games, and Wimbledon-finalist-to-be Garbiñe Muguruza in a run to the semi-finals. She unluckily drew Maria Sharapova in Round 1 at Wimbledon, but made more summer progress with back-to-back tournament wins on the lower-tier ITF circuit. Her juggernaut was beginning to roll.
But it was at the US Open where Konta really began to turn heads. After coming through three intense rounds of qualifying, she beat home-hope Louisa Chirico, ninth seed Garbiñe Muguruza (in the longest women’s match at the US Open since the introduction of the tie-break in 1970) and 18th seed Andrea Petkovic, before eventually falling to two-time major champion Petra Kvitova in two close sets. She left the Billie Jean King Tennis Centre having quadrupled the amount of Grand Slam main draw match wins in her career and accumulated enough points to lift her to a new career-high ranking of 58. Konta was on the map.
Her 2015 ended on a high with an impressive run to the quarter-final at the Wuhan Open, a nomination for Most Improved Player at the WTA awards and a ranking 103 spots higher than her 2014 endpoint.
At the start of this year in Melbourne, Konta took her game to even greater heights, surprising many by beating Venus Williams in the opening round and using that momentum to make the Australian Open final four, only losing to eventual champion Angelique Kerber. She became the first British woman to reach a grand slam singles semi-final since Jo Durie in 1983.
Since then, Konta’s form has been steady with scattered deep runs and a breakthrough into the top-20. But at 18 in the world she was the highest-ranked title-less player. After Stanford, however, that honour now lies with Daria Kasatkina.
Technically-speaking, Jo Konta is still fundamentally the same tennis player as the 2011-14 journeywoman. Her success has always been built on rock-solid, aggressive groundstrokes, hit with unerring, penetrating depth. Combined with that is her methodical, unusual service action which produces a world-class delivery; Konta is fourth on the WTA ace count in 2016. And yet, to watch Konta now is a totally different experience. Previously, watching her meant an emotional investment because a wobble-collapse combination was never too far away. But the key to the upgraded Konta is her mind-set. With a sports psychologist on board, she now manages her emotions better than almost everyone else. In the knowledge that she’s at ease with herself inside her on-court bubble, following Konta’s matches is mercifully no longer the chore it once was.
A Konta-trait since mid-2015 is to grab control of a match and charge to the finish. That’s why, when she went ahead 7-5 4-1 in the Stanford Final against Venus, the first title looked a certainty for a business-like Konta.
But suddenly the old Konta resurfaced, the errors leaked and the scoreboard ticked away from her. Venus won six of the next seven games to level the match. It was during this small crisis that Konta asked for the help of one of her Spanish coaches, José-Manual Garcia.
Contrary to a core tennis value – that it should be the ultimate loner sport, with players left to their own devices and forced to problem solve – since 2009 the WTA tour has allowed on-court coaching. On the whole it’s a tedious, degrading scheme but, like on Sunday, it can provide interesting insight into the players’ minds. The only tactical message coming from Garcia was to stick to the game-plan which had brought about the comfortable lead. Instead, he simply told her to stay calm. But Konta repeated the phrase, ‘Do I need to be braver?’ The language barrier prevented Konta from ever receiving the answer, but it was a fascinating question. Had the old Konta asked it, it might have smacked of desperation. But on Sunday it was proof of a player thinking clearly. Yes, she did need to be braver, and once again hit the ball with authority.
Despite losing the second set, Konta re-adopted a more courageous approach in the decider to move ahead from an increasingly weary Venus. Not usually one to display her emotions, Konta afforded herself a roar and fist-pump in celebration at the moment of victory. This was the most important rung yet on her climb up the tennis ladder.
Such a quick evolutionary process might faze some players. The transition from the ITF Circuit – a tough, Survival of the Fittest environment – to Grand Slam locker rooms reserved for the elite might sound straightforward, but it’s a lot to compute. Konta’s handled every stage of her rise with grace, and she’s comfortable in her new company. With the remainder of the season on hard courts – her favourite surface – Konta will surely have her sights set on breaching the top-10 and qualifying for the WTA Finals in Singapore. Don’t bet against her.
Photograph: NAPARAZZI via Flickr