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Johanna Konta, a late-blooming champion

By Myrtille Rambion   on   Thursday 06 April 2017
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Having won the most prestigious title of her career in Miami, where she beat Caroline Wozniacki in the final (6/4 6/3), the Brit's game seems to have finally matured as she settles into the No.2 spot in the WTA Race.

Johanna Konta, having just won the 2017 tournament in Miami, might well be described as a "late bloomer". On the courts of Key Biscayne in Miami, the 25-year-old Brit clinched her most prestigious title to date, defeating former world No.1 Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets (6-4 6-3 in 1 hour 35 minutes).

Her very first Premier Mandatory title – the second-highest category after the Grand Slam – goes hand in hand with a new WTA ranking. "JoKo" is now seventh in the world rankings, but in the Road to Singapore race she sits in second place, less than 100 points behind Karolina Pliskova.

This trophy-hungry player, who has stayed somewhat out of the spotlight, becomes a warrior with a stoic exterior when she steps out on court. After her victories in Stanford in 2016 and Sydney in January, Johanna Konta sees this third career title in Miami as a springboard to something greater.

"I´ve always had the belief of wanting to become a Grand Slam champion, wanting to become the best in the world," she asserted after her victory in Florida. "Without that, I don´t think it makes the victories as sweet and I think also the defeats as motivating." This opinion comes as no surprise because, when it comes to Johanna Konta, it has always been a question of personal development and timing.

Sydney, Graf and Sanchez

To understand Konta's ascent, we must rewind back to when she first started playing tennis, in the evenings after school at the age of eight. Or even earlier, to what made her the person she is today. Born in Sydney, Australia, to Hungarian immigrant parents (her father, Gabor, is a hotelier and her mother, Gabriella, is a dentist), Jo grew up idolising Steffi Graf. But her talent for tennis took her to Spain, to train with Emilio Sanchez, Arantxa's older brother. Aged 14, she flew to Barcelona to attend the Sanchez-Casal Academy… just like a certain Andy Murray.

There, a 26-hour flight away from home, she worked hard on her tennis. She did not see her father for four months, or her mother for six. "There was no Skype in those days," she told the Guardian a few months ago. "I remember this little payphone in the reception in the main clubhouse – and I would go there at a certain hour and they would call." This uprooting taught her the need to create a tough exterior and a personality that is strong enough to resist pressure.

Read more: Roger Federer: "You want to enjoy yourself, and that's the case with me at the moment"

But very soon, her family – she has an older sister, Emese – decided to leave Sydney and move to Europe to enable Johanna to dedicate herself to her passion with a lighter heart. In 2005, the Konta family set up home in the East End of London, then a while later in Eastbourne, where they still live now. Great Britain proved to be a strong mooring for the family. Though Johanna represented Australia until spring 2012, when she finally obtained British nationality that May she said it was "just a pure weight off my shoulders."

This enabled her to focus more on her game and better understand how her mind worked. A few weeks later, at the US Open, she progressed past the qualifying stages of a Grand Slam for the first time, and reached the second round of the main draw. "You have a lot of battles and many are with yourself. The way my personality is I do internalise some things and I beat myself up on the inside."

Wim Fissette, a great asset

In her heart of hearts, she knows that the serenity she has gained from getting to know herself properly will one day enable her potential to shine through. In her own time, allowing herself to slowly digest her progress, she is improving. She won two ITF titles in 2013, broke into the top 100 in 2014 and then the top 50 in 2015, where she reached the second week of the US Open before reaching the quarterfinals in Wuhan. She then made her "real" debut into the elite circle with a semifinal appearance at the Australian Open in 2016. This was followed by a string of other positive performances: quarterfinals in Miami, semis in Eastbourne, a win in Stanford, a final in Beijing…

Since then, she has not stopped climbing the ladder of success, and at increasing speed at the end of last season. In November 2016, the sudden death of her mental coach served as a trigger for recognising what she did and did not want: to everyone's surprise, she parted ways with the Spanish coach who had guided her into the top 10, Esteban Carril, to call upon the services of Wim Fissette, a very prominent coach on the tour (he has coached Kim Clijsters, Sabine Lisicki, Simona Halep and Victoria Azarenka).

This decision has obviously paid off, as after just three months working together, the duo proved highly successful in Miami. "The first week was just about getting to know each other on the court, how she feels about herself and her game. We slowly moved from there, and tried to focus on her strengths while getting the unforced errors out, and helping her move better and smarter.” So, what are her strengths? Her opponents in Florida − who included Caroline Wozniacki, Simona Halep and Venus Williams − will tell you: her serve, her return and her unrelenting aggression at the baseline.

"In the past, Johanna has been very focused on her mental skills, and how to control her emotions during the match," said Fissette. "She still does exercises and different tricks to stay mentally strong. I'm very happy that she takes action and tries to work on that aspect in the same way that we [Ed.: her coach, her sparring partner and her physical trainer] try to work on her serve or return."

Mission Roland-Garros

This arsenal of weapons now makes Johanna Konta a real pretender to a Grand Slam crown. So, what about Roland Garros? Konta avows that she has the French Open crown in her sights, even though she has been knocked out in the first round twice in Paris and her record on clay is less than dazzling, with only two wins to her name. But the reason for this is very simple: up until last year, her ranking did not allow her to enter tournaments of this calibre.

"Until recently,” she said after her victory in Miami, “most of my Challenger wins were on clay, so I don’t necessarily think it’s a surface that I’m uncomfortable on. It’s more that I’m playing against higher quality players, so it’s just another learning curve.” A curve which, after taking a while to get going, has rapidly soared in the last few months.

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