Konta storms into semi-finals

Brilliant former world No.4 drops just five games against Stephens to reach first RG semi.

Johanna Konta© Julien Crosnier / FFT
 - Kate Battersby

There is a covert new weapon in Tennis Town which no stat yet measures. Unglamorously called “acceptance”, it has made Johanna Konta near-bulletproof to date at Roland-Garros 2019. In the quarter-finals Sloane Stephens became the latest challenger to rebound helplessly off the Briton’s mental defence shield as Konta roared into the last four for the first time on the Paris clay, railroading the former US Open champion 6-1, 6-4 in a mere 71 minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Hear this: Chris Evert, seven-time winner here, declared herself “speechless” at the No.26 seed’s display, and added: “No one can beat Konta as long as she plays like that.”

Konta herself could find just one word for it: “Happy, more than anything. I feel just really happy. Yeah, happy, I think, is the main feeling. Just happy.”

No wonder. Having arrived here with net yield of zero wins from four previous visits, 28-year-old Konta has become the first British woman into the semi-finals here since Jo Durie in 1983. Cue much beard-stroking among puzzled observers. Yet time and again this fortnight Konta has openly described the transformational mental key which has brought her more clay wins this year – 15, after this victory – than she had previously amassed in her entire career.

Her ploy, developed in tandem with coach Dimitri Zovialoff since they began working together last autumn, is a new way of thinking. Previously Konta suffered somewhat from a no-Plan-B mindset, whereby if her initial tactic veered off-course, she was unable to adapt and negativity crowded in. But here she has spoken of being “malleable” about unfolding match events, “having acceptance” of them.

Rather in the manner of mindfulness, it is subtly different from the common competitive mindset of focusing on the positive. It means frustration rarely touches her, freeing her to move on and find her optimum game.

“He's been great in just encouraging me and giving me the space to play the way I want to play, not putting too many restraints or restrictions on myself,” confirmed Konta after steaming past Stephens. “I’m enjoying that self-discovery process of being the player who I want to be, trusting the decisions I make out there. It’s a really nice journey to be on. I feel a lot of ownership over it, which is a really nice place to be.”

Dominance over Stephens

The result was plain to see in this, her third 2019 defeat of Stephens. As the American discovered, it is impossible to disrupt an opponent who, win or lose, simply leaves each completed point behind.

That was the case from the off here, because the game in which Konta was perhaps most vulnerable to her old mental patterns was the very first one. Unruffled by two whistling Stephens winners and her own double fault, Konta remained zoned in on her own process throughout a break point, four deuces and eight minutes. That first achievement sealed, she began forcing errors from last year’s Roland-Garros finalist, sewing together some gorgeous backhand work for the break.

Stephens, so often a silent assassin, shrieked in frustration as the Konta backhand bit her time and again. Visibly floored by the pace of events, the American could not regroup. She was rapidly not just a set down, but crucially another break too as once again Konta hustled her into error.

Johanna Konta©Julien Crosnier / FFT

Stephens improved, yet could not stop Konta making off with 18 successive points on her own serve. Ultimately Konta’s bag of swag bulged with six aces among 25 winners and 87% of points on her first serve.

“I have never doubted my ability to play on the surface,” said Konta. “The things that I'm working on can only help me on the surface, although I strongly believe the way we are working translates to all surfaces.”

Now there’s a thought. As Konta completed her post-match recovery, the sound of distant thunder could be heard rolling around the Parisian skies. But the storm had already arrived on Court Philippe-Chatrier, raining all over Sloane Stephens’ parade.

Sloane Stephens©Julien Crosnier / FFT

Sometimes at the biggest tournaments, it is possible to observe a player gathering a sense of destiny as they proceed through the draw. Konta’s story here carries none of that grand inevitability. It is simply about a personal method found and applied point-by-point.

So far this year on the red dirt, it has propelled Konta to finals in Rabat and Rome. It is fascinating to contemplate how far she might go on the grandest clay stage of all.