Kiki warming up to spotlight
With great form on red dirt in 2019, Konta has at last won her first ever match at Roland-Garros.
In the great bakery of tennis life, according to Johanna Konta, success is all about finding a really fabulous recipe.
Until this year, the Briton has rarely tasted success on clay, and every one of her four previous forays on the red dirt of Paris produced the earliest possible exit. But in 2019, the ingredients of her personal clay-court game are combining so well that she made the final in Marrakech and Rome – and at Roland-Garros 2019 she has at last sampled the taste of victory, courtesy of her 6-4, 6-4 first-round win over qualifier Antonia Lottner.
“With baking, there is a recipe,” said Konta, such a keen baker that she offered raspberry and elderflower cakes to players on the Wimbledon practice courts last summer. “I have generally found that the problem is rarely the baker, it’s mostly the recipe.
“If the recipe is wrong, then the cake is probably going to be wrong. It’s not always your fault.
“It’s nice to have won a main draw match here. I have never doubted my ability on the surface. I think there was certain work that I needed to put in, certain things that needed to happen for it to go my way a little bit. But I’m definitely pleased to be playing at the level I am. Obviously it’s nice it’s happening on the clay this year, but I’m generally just pleased with the work that I’m doing.”
No wonder. That win over Lottner takes the 26th seed to 11-3 on clay in 2019. The German may be ranked 147, but is sufficiently dangerous to have beaten Belinda Bencic only last month.
Konta’s ranking, which peaked at No.4 after she made the semis at Wimbledon two years ago, stood at 47 in early April. But her achievements in Marrakech and Rome – which included wins over Sloane Stephens and newly-crowned Madrid champion Kiki Bertens, no less – have seen her take a bounce of 20-plus places.
Next up for Konta is the American wildcard Lauren Davis, currently on a six-match clay-court winning streak having won the ITF title in Bonita Springs. The two have never met at Tour level, although Konta describes the world No.111 as “a very good mover, a very good competitor”.
Should Konta double her tally of Roland-Garros wins by getting through that one, then a possible third round rematch lies ahead against Bertens, whom she vanquished in Rome.
Of course at present she isn’t thinking about that one, with Davis her only focus. But to those who have observed her and listened to her throughout this clay-court season, her view that she has “never doubted my ability on the surface” is something she has emphasised more than once.
“I don’t necessarily feel this is massively out of the blue or super-wow,” she said, after beating Bertens in Rome. “I won a lot of my first junior titles and professional titles on clay. I’ve always felt that I have a game that has the ability to do well on this surface. I never felt inadequate on the surface in any way.”
With such a turnaround in her clay success, it’s natural to look for an explanation. Her self-belief can only have benefited from a clutch of truly resourceful Fed Cup wins she has earned for Britain this year. Meanwhile, last October Stan Wawrinka’s first coach Dimitri Zavialoff became Konta’s new mentor, following the end of her professional partnership with Michael Joyce.
“I’m surrounded by some great people and I’m really enjoying the work we’re doing,” said Konta. “I feel like I’m learning and growing on a daily basis, which makes me excited to go to work in the morning.
“I’ve really bought into his philosophy, giving me the freedom to express myself on court, to be more autonomous. When you’re able to work together harmoniously like that, it makes things more productive. I’m playing with a little more variety, a little more trust in my ability to do different things. Trying to use that in the right proportion during matches.
“That work we’re doing translates on to all surfaces, and it’s giving me a good space to play the way I want to play. It’s nice that I’m getting some rewards for it.”
Asked to attribute her sparkling 2019 clay form to just a single key influence, she said: “It’s always a combination of things, but I think having acceptance. So I’m accepting when the points are longer, or when they’re shorter – not trying to force something to happen. I’m a bit more malleable and accepting of what’s happening in matches.
“Most importantly, I’m just enjoying what I do.”
For Konta, nothing tastes better than that.