Johanna Konta is a relative newcomer to British tennis, but she continues to write her name into the record books. After her breakthrough in 2015, she is now brewing up a storm down under where she has reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open after beating the 21st seed Ekaterina Makarova in three sets. The last British woman to appear in the last eight of a Grand Slam was Jo Durie at Wimbledon in 1984. So who exactly is Johanna Konta?
Konta might have a racket in her hands all day every day, but as her Twitter account informs the world, she “would love to go to concerts most nights”. Indeed, the life philosophy of the Australia-born player of Hungarian parentage is probably summed up in her Twitter profile where she states: “I take gelato [ice cream] very seriously.” So this is probably both one of the most down-to-earth nominees for the BT Sport Action Woman of the Year – and the craziest.
Apropos nothing, she admits: “If I owned a house I would probably mortgage it to go to a U2 concert.” And the admission about how highly she rated her defeat of Halep at the Wuhan Open came when she said: “Right now I am a big Taylor Swift groupie. Seeing her in concert in Hyde Park this summer was the greatest thing that happened to me all year, even including the victory over Halep.”
Perhaps it should not be surprising. This, after all, is the women who told excited reporters after one of her victories on the way to a place in the last 16 of the US Open – bearing in mind she had never gone past the first round of a Grand Slam: “It’s not like I’ve grown wings or found a cure for cancer. I’ve just won a tennis match.”
So emulating the Sainted Sue during a quarter-final match in China largely went over her head. She says: “I found out about it in the press conference afterwards. It was special when I heard it, but afterwards I moved on from it. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, ‘Yes! First Brit in 34 years to beat the world No.2!’”
Who, then, is this paragon of level-headedness? Johanna Konta was born 24 years ago in Sydney to Gabor and Gabriella Konta, two Hungarians who emigrated separately and met down under. Their daughter became a British citizen in 2012 and is adamant: “Obviously I come from a mixed background, but I am British. I have a British passport. I am very proud to be here.”
She is a very focused women. “I started being home-schooled from the age of 12 because I wanted to play tennis full-time. I knew at the age of nine I wanted to be the best player in the world. That’s the way it was. I don’t know why. I’m a competitive person, I guess. My mum was reminding me recently that it was a nightmare when I was younger. Everything was a race. I have an elder half-sister [Emese] from my dad’s previous marriage, and I actually made her cry once playing Monopoly!”
Fast-forward to 2015 and the US Open where she first properly entered the nation’s consciousness. She could hardly be avoided, she stayed on court so long. Her defeat of ninth seed and Wimbledon finalist Garbine Muguruza lasted three hours and 23 minutes, the longest women’s match at the US Open since the tie-break was introduced in 1970.
Konta battled back after losing a nail-biting second-set tie-break to win the marathon by pure sweat, guts and grit. “That was a highlight for me in a sense of how I dealt with the situation,” she recalls. “I competed well and never stopped battling. I’ve never sweated so much as I did in that match – I knew I’d worked hard!”
She then extended her winning run to 16 matches when overcoming 16th-seed Andrea Petkovic before bowing out in the last 16 to two-time Grand Slam champion Petra Kvitova. But her streak was hot and she reached the semi-finals of the following Wuhan Open, where she beat Halep in the last eight, coming from 5-1 down in the final set. “Being 1-5 didn’t affect me as much as you might think. I was enjoying the fact I was out there competing. I kept my mind very present and the momentum shifted a little bit. I got fortunate a bit as well. I kind of disregarded the score and kept on digging.”
Going into the season, she said: “I tried not to have any expectations about 2015. I do my best to stay in the here and now and enjoy the little things. My fears for 2015 were if I wouldn’t be able to find this ‘zen place’ and ‘Oh no, what if I’m not going to become Buddha!’ Because my mental coach always says to me, ‘Oh, you’re like Buddha now’, but I’m not, I’m actually really not!”
Buddha or not, the year did not have the most auspicious start. Konta’s funding was cut by the LTA and she moved her coaching base from the UK to Spain where she works with two coaches, Esteban Carril and Jose Manual Garcia. A third Spaniard, Juan Coto, has helped strengthen her psychologically.
But anyone who believes they have spotted a perceived correlation between her funding cut and the fact she finished the year higher than ever in the world rankings at No.47 is given short shrift. Konta says: “I think it is a really unfair assumption made by the media. That is not what happened. I sure as hell didn’t need my career to be threatened to play well. It is just convenient for people to say that is how it was.
“When the LTA cut my funding significantly I already had an incredible team around me who told me that no matter what happened – even if they had to do pro-bono work – they were going to stick with me. I am very blessed. I guess it is because they believe in me personally, in my integrity, my ability and my loyalty.”
This support has helped her find the happiness and contentment that is reflected in her life on and off the court. Keeping her mind in the present is just one of the tools that the new and improved Konta uses to enjoy her tennis and help maintain perspective. “Going into 2015 I was most looking to be happy. I lost my way a bit for a couple of years in terms of why I was playing the sport and why I was putting in the effort day in day out. As clichéd as it sounds, I did a fair bit of soul-searching and had a lot of stern conversations with myself. I had to let go of judging myself and my happiness, not on results but the effort I put in and my attitude.”
It is this mindset that helped Konta find happiness when she was ranked 150 in the world, having suffered that reduction in income and playing small tournaments in the United States. “I looked for what brought me enjoyment. I enjoyed the wonderful weather there, the great food; I enjoyed going out and smelling the fresh air. The biggest thing I’ve learnt is finding the reasons for my enjoyment. I’ve learnt from 2015 that I’m definitely in control of my own happiness and how I want to be living my life. In previous years I’ve not been in control of that and I’ve struggled. Now I look for things to make me happy no matter what situation I’m in. If I’m winning on Arthur Ashe Stadium at the US Open or playing a small tournament in America, I can be happy.
“This year has given me some great building blocks. I feel things are on my terms when I’m on the court. Of course, it’s a work in progress – I’m definitely not all the way there yet, but I’m in a good place and I’m staying very much in the moment.”
— Action Woman (@BTSportAW) November 8, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Beth Shine studied a Masters in Sport Journalism at St. Mary’s University and now works as communications assistant for the Tennis Foundation. A freelance sports journalist, and keen netball player and fan, Beth follows most sports keenly with a particular interest in tennis, rugby and equestrianism. Beth’s latest articles.