‘One of the best British players of the modern era’

December 8, 2021
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    Johanna KontaThe last of Johanna Konta's four WTA titles came in Nottingham this year

    Johanna Konta was a late developer, who has taken relatively early retirement, but still found time to become one of the very best British players of the modern era.

    She reached three Grand Slam semi-finals and rose to number four in the world, won four WTA titles and won the last 12 singles matches she played for her country in the Billie Jean King Cup.

    Emma Raducanu winning the US Open at 18 should not devalue those achievements at all – although some still make snide remarks about Tim Henman's fabulous career, just because Andy Murray went a few steps further.

    • Johanna Konta announces retirement
    • 'I hope to inspire anyone who feels overlooked'

    The wonderful thing about Konta's success is that no-one saw it coming.

    She was outside the world's top 100, and still playing regularly on the ITF development tour, when she celebrated her 24th birthday in the summer of 2015.

    Konta struggled to close out matches, and there was a resigned feeling within British tennis that her potential would remain unfulfilled.

    But the woman born in Sydney to Hungarian parents, who had made the UK her home a decade earlier, had very different ideas.

    Later that summer she won consecutive tournaments in Canada on the ITF Tour, before reaching the fourth round of the US Open as a qualifier. It was Petra Kvitova who ended a 16-match unbeaten run, on the Arthur Ashe Stadium, but Konta looked as if she belonged in the biggest tennis stadium in the world.

    The relationship she formed with mental coach Juan Coto made a significant difference. Readily available by virtual means, if not in person, Coto became an integral part of her coaching team until his sudden death in November 2016.

    "I miss him every day," Konta said later that year. "Everything that I do to this day, and will continue to do, he will be a part of."

    A first Grand Slam semi-final followed rapidly, as Konta reached the last four at the 2016 Australian Open after beating Venus Williams in the first round. WTA titles were secured in Stanford, Sydney and Miami before a run to the Wimbledon semi-finals of 2017.

    The Centre Court defeat by Venus Williams was relatively swift, but that was the summer Konta established herself as a major star in the UK.

    There was drama as she beat Donna Vekic 10-8 in the deciding set of their second-round match on the day flying ants descended on Wimbledon, and then huge excitement as Konta beat Simona Halep in the quarter-finals.

    But success, always magnified during the Wimbledon fortnight, can bring with it unwanted attention. Konta found that overwhelming at times – especially one particular trip to a noodle restaurant where some photographers were uninvited guests.

    She won only two matches in the rest of that year, and had only two Grand Slam wins in the whole of 2018. She experienced occasional breathing difficulties on court, and there was talk of hitting the reset button and trying to rebuild her as a player.

    Konta had achieved a lot, in a short space of time, with an excellent first serve and some aggressive flat hitting from the baseline. But slowly and surely she tried to become a little less mechanical, develop more variety in her game, and force herself to come forward.

    She never looked particularly comfortable at the net, but the drop shot became a potent weapon as she put together a magnificent 2019 – especially on the clay.

    She reached the final in both Rabat and Rome and then made it all the way to the semi-finals of Roland Garros, where she had never previously won a main-draw singles match.

    And that was the one that really got away. Despite going 5-3 up in both sets against the unseeded 19 year old Marketa Vondrousova, Konta lost the match in straight sets.

    There were further quarter-finals to come at Wimbledon and the US Open. Konta played brilliantly on Centre Court to beat Grand Slam champions Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova, but was not able to play with the same freedom and composure against world number 54 Barbora Strycova in the last eight.

    The last couple of years have been full of frustration. Lockdowns, Covid-19 and persistent knee problems have conspired against the 30-year-old.

    It was nice she won a first tournament on home soil in Nottingham in June, but cruel to be ruled out of Wimbledon as a close contact of a positive case, and then out of the Tokyo Olympics having tested positive herself.

    But you sensed her heart was not in it any more.

    This incredibly dedicated professional, who as a nine-year-old used to drag her father out of bed to go running at five in the morning, is ready to move on.

    She is keen to start a family and explore new interests. She is a talented cook who worries about food waste and food poverty, has established a dog-walking business with her partner Jackson, and earlier this year completed a three-month online business course at Harvard University. She has also recently dipped her toes into the broadcasting pool, including with BBC Radio 5 Live.

    Konta has always been comfortable separating herself from her peers in this most individual of sports. As a fairly private person, she has often found media duties awkward. She could be prickly, but always stood up for herself. If she felt she was being patronised, she would say so, and usually very eloquently.

    Given her late arrival in the sporting public's consciousness, she has never evoked the same passion and devotion commanded by other star British athletes.

    But it has been a phenomenal career, and Johanna Konta should be extremely proud of all she has achieved.

    Konta's rise from unknown to British star

    2005: Aged 14, Konta moves to Britain when her family settles in the south-coast town of Eastbourne.

    2012: Switches allegiance to Britain when ranked outside the top 200 and makes Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon.

    2015: Ranked 97th in the world and without a Grand Slam main-draw win, makes a surprise run to the US Open last 16.

    2016: Goes even further at the Australian Open, becoming the first British woman for 33 years to reach a major semi-final.

    Wins her first WTA title in July and climbs into the world's top 10 in October, providing a British presence there for the first time since Jo Durie in 1984.

    2017: Starts the season by winning her second WTA title – without dropping a set – in Sydney.

    Claims the biggest title of her career when she becomes the first British woman to win the Miami Open.

    Becomes the first British woman to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals since 1978, propelling her to fourth in the world rankings.

    2018: Hires Maria Sharapova's former coach Michael Joyce at the start of the season, but the partnership does not click as she slips out of the world's top 20.

    Shows signs of tension by saying "the media doesn't make it easy" for her at May's French Open and has a row with the umpire during June's Nottingham Open final.

    Loses in the second round at Wimbledon and, following a first-round defeat at the US Open, drops outside the world's top 40.

    2019: Helps Great Britain end a 26-year wait for Fed Cup promotion in April, winning both her singles matches in the play-off victory against Kazakhstan.

    Heads into the European clay-court swing ranked 45th in the world, but reaches the Morocco Open and Italian Open finals under recently appointed coach Dimitri Zavialoff.

    Makes a remarkable run to the French Open semi-finals, having never previously won a main-draw match at Roland Garros. But tension gets the better of her in a straight-set defeat by Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova.

    Another fine run at Wimbledon ends in a quarter-final defeat by unseeded Barbora Strycova, leading to frustration at "disrespectful and patronising" questioning from a reporter.

    2020: Starts the year with three straight defeats in Brisbane, Melbourne and St Petersburg, but reaches the Monterrey semi-finals in the last event before the coronavirus pandemic stops the WTA Tour.

    When the season resumes in August, she reaches the Cincinnati semi-finals but loses in the US Open second round and earns just two more wins that year.

    2021: Wins just three matches in the first six months of the season – suffering first-round exits at the Australian Open and French Open – then wins the Nottingham title in June.

    Pulls out of Wimbledon and the Olympics in the summer before announcing her retirement.

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