For the most part, British tennis beyond Andy Murray still remains the laughing stock of the world. It's a fact that is ratified at every opportunity. When Maria Sharapova lost in the semi-finals of Wimbledon, she consoled herself by cackling along with her audience at the thought of all the front pages she would have made with a British flag by her name.
When Murray was asked to assess the promise of Kyle Edmund, a snort sounded from a foreign journalist at the back of the press room. And when Dan Evans announces his presence - as he did this week - with a decent result once every few years, well, everyone laughs.
This is why the recent rise of Johanna Konta has made for such an unfamiliar sight. After a breathtaking end to 2015 in which she recorded 21 wins in 22 matches, reached the US Open last 16, contended her first big WTA quarter-final, beat four top 20 players and three top 10 players, and sliced an unbelievable 100 spots off her rank in four months, there is no laughter to be had when a player is forced to face her. All of a sudden, she is no longer the typical British walkover - she’s simply a bad, bad draw.
Murray storms past Groth, Konta wins and Jamie Murray also through
This week, it was the great Venus Williams who received the bad draw. Williams arrived on Rod Laver Arena with her thigh wrapped and hoping that she could just survive the match in order to nurture her injury for another day. Well, she didn’t. Instead, she was sent home packing in the most brutal way possible. For an hour, Konta rubbed truckloads of salt over Williams’ bare wounds, forcing her to chase the yellow ball from tramline to tramline. She bossed the champion with consistent, relentless aggression and even served for a 6-4 5-0 humiliation of Williams before eventually closing it out two games later.
On Thursday, Konta contested her second round in the same tournament but completely different surroundings. On a sterile outer court in a match she was heavily favoured to win, the Brit shoved young Chinese challenger Zheng Saisai out of her way to move to her second consecutive slam third round.
Although the 6-2 6-3 score suggests a simple match, Konta had to work. Throughout the first set in particular, the 24-year-old’s service games were littered with small moments that could have altered the course of the match. When she wasn’t stuck knee-deep in endless deuce games, she had to dig out 0-30 deficits and hold from behind. In these moments, the natural assumption in a match involving a British player is to expect nothing but catastrophic failure. But Konta is showing that she is a level above all the ordinary British players in recent years, and she assuredly saw herself through.
How does a player rise from obscurity to relevance in such little time? Konta must be sick of this question, considering it is tossed at her every time she enters a room. Often, the expectation in these situations is that something just clicked: maybe a new coach provided the missing piece of the puzzle, perhaps the player finally mastered a previously errant stroke, or possibly a specific off-court event proved the catalyst for success.
“Is anything straightforward?” was her response to one such question this week. “[The reason is] definitely multi-layered. [..] It really is a process, and it's about putting in the work day in and day out and whether the knocks or the good things come. It's just being able to not be too high or too low. Just to, yeah, keep trucking on.”
The phrase “straight-talking” is usually reserved for the tennis players who mouth off thoughtless, controversial statements. But Konta talks straight, too. Nothing she says is remotely controversial or contentious, but she speaks her mind and it’s always striking how entirely logical and coherent her thoughts are. As she has asserted constantly, there was no magic potion or sudden epiphany. She simply trained and approached every situation in identical fashion, so sure that the right application would eventually yield the correct results.
Konta’s tennis reflects this. Even the most tennis illiterate person could take one look at her game and understand that she is not the most naturally gifted player to step on the court. Her game is riddled with glaringly obvious technical issues. Even the best shot in her arsenal - her brilliant backhand - almost makes it look like she plays the game of tennis armed with a particularly heavy shopping bag rather than a racket, so clunky and effortful is her swing.
But in theory, Konta also does much right. She serves well, her mentality is firmly set on aggression and she uses intelligent tactics, but she is also capable of competent defence and even tries to incorporate various aspects of variety. It’s a game that was built through years of hard work.
During her US Open run, Konta gave a self-assessment that underlined the striking coherence she approaches tennis with.
Johanna Konta upset Venus Williams in the first round.
Image credit: Eurosport
“I'm humble with coming up against any opponent knowing that I can beat them but they can beat me. I can lose, they can win,” she said. “I'm humble in that way. But I'm an ambitious person. I do believe in my ability, and I wouldn't be playing in this sport if I didn't think that I could do well.”
It’s not difficult to imagine Johanna Konta, long before the success, mentally approaching and executing the game of tennis in this precise manner. It’s not difficult to understand that she humbly rolled with the punches while ambitiously biding her time in expectation of eventually throwing a few of her own. And it’s not difficult to comprehend that she’ll continue to do so, whether the run continues in Australia and she entrenches herself at this level, or whether it turns out in due time that she’s currently living the best moments of her professional career.
She’ll keep trucking on, and you can’t ask much more of a tennis player than that.
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