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As Britain’s number 1 female tennis player wins the biggest title of her career, Kieran Jackson looks back at her rise to the top of the women’s game, and what the future could hold for one of the WTA’s most exciting talents
In June 2015, Jo Konta was the world number 147, the British number two, and one of many female players grinding it out in the lower echelons of professional tennis. Fast forward 22 months, her stock has risen considerably. Following her fantastic tournament victory at the Miami Open last week, the 25-year old stands at a career high 7th in the world, with talk of a maiden Grand Slam, which seemed an insurmountable goal not so long ago, now very much a realistic and achievable target.
Australian-born (though we like to keep that quiet), Konta’s immediate progress following her switching of allegiance to Great Britain in May 2012 was gradual. Alongside many other professional tennis players ranked below the safety net of the top 100, Konta was left competing relentlessly on the ITF Women’s circuit, known as $100,000 events, and in the qualifying of WTA Tour events, for a few years. Entrance into the top 100 for the first time in 2014 was contrasted to a sluggish start to the 2015 season, in which Konta’s mentality was questioned by then GB Fed Cup Captain Judy Murray, who exclaimed that she was suffering from “anxiety” on court.
However, a successful North American swing in 2015, including a superb 16 match-winning run which ended in the last 16 of the US Open, propelled her to 58 in the world, and an opportunity to compete with the very best week in, week out. This was a chance she fully grasped with both hands, with a string of spectacular performances at the 2016 Australian Open. This was when Konta truly announced herself on the world stage. An unseeded run to the semi-finals, which included an opening round annihilation of Venus Williams, moved her up to 28 in the WTA rankings, and significantly, marked her passing of $1 million for career earnings.
“THIS WAS WHEN KONTA TRULY ANNOUNCED HERSELF ON THE WORLD STAGE.”
This was a female British tennis player which the 21st century hadn’t seen before: resilient, hard-working and tenacious, Konta’s breakthrough 2016 led to her first WTA Tour title, in Stanford. She wasn’t revolutionising the women’s game; her emphasis on hard-hitting baseline rallies, coupled with efficient footwork and consistency, is a style of play which has become synonymous with women’s tennis in recent years. Nonetheless, Konta was starting to enter the elite bracket of players who were in with a shout of qualifying for the end-of-season finals in Singapore. Though she just missed out, she finished 2016 in the top 10 for the first time, and won the ‘WTA’s Most Improved Player’ award.
“SHE WASN’T REVOLUTIONISING THE WOMEN’S GAME; HER EMPHASIS ON HARD-HITTING BASELINE RALLIES, COUPLED WITH EFFICIENT FOOTWORK AND CONSISTENCY, IS A STYLE OF PLAY WHICH HAS BECOME SYNONYMOUS WITH WOMEN’S TENNIS IN RECENT YEARS.”
Was Konta satisfied? Seemingly not. The announcement of her split with coaches Esteban Carril and Jose-Manuel Garcia (the pair whom she had thrived under since 2015, when she moved her training base to Gijon in Northern Spain) soon after the WTA season had ended raised many eyebrows. This occurred soon after the sudden death of her mental coach Juan Coto, a man who she had the utmost admiration for, and who’s influence notably coincided with the turnaround of Konta’s fortunes on the court. Yet her recruitment of Belgian coach Wim Fissette – who guided Kim Clijsters to success on her return to the tour in 2009 – and hitting partner Andrew Fitzpatrick in the off-season was a remarkably astute move from a woman who clearly wasn’t afraid to take risks.
And so we reach the present day. Her start to 2017 was impressive to say the least: she won the Australian Open warm up event in Sydney without dropping a set, and her run to the quarter-finals importantly made sure she didn’t lose too many ranking points following her run to the semi-finals the previous year. She is a player on top form, as illustrated in Miami where her dismantling of former World Number 1 Caroline Wozniacki 6-4 6-3 in the final, in one of the WTA’s ‘Premier Mandatory’ (yes, that really is what the WTA call their equivalent of the ATP Master Series) events, shows huge promise heading into the European season.
What next? Well, her immediate focus is trying to improve on a surface which she has found most uncomfortable in the past: clay. Her results on the red stuff, and most significantly at Roland Garros, have been poor, and she’ll certainly have to improve if she wants to maintain her top-10 ranking heading into Wimbledon. Yet no matter what her ranking is as she heads towards SW19, the lush green grass should serve as an ideal platform to endear herself to the British public in a way Heather Watson, during her superb showing against Serena Williams in 2015, and Laura Robson, via her winning of the girls singles title aged 14, did previously. She is making progress with British tennis followers; her run to the quarter-finals at the Rio Olympics as well as her spearheading of Great Britain’s Fed Cup team to a pivotal play-off away to Romania later this month have caught the eye. However, a sparkling run at the All England Club this summer should be the next target for a player who’s season momentum and confidence means that anything, and I mean anything (world number 1, maiden Grand Slam), is possible. Jo Konta has the world at her feet.