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In Good Conscience

Hard-working Konta's self-belief proof of a Bourne-again player

With Australian and British reporters at the Australian Open playing the nationality game around her, the rising tennis star Johanna Konta came up with the perfect put-down:

"Actually, guys, I'm a tri-citizen," she said. "I also have a Hungarian passport, so I'm pretty much the female version of Jason Bourne."

Bourne was a fictional character of the 1980s, a spy who changed his identity to whatever country he passed through. Konta, on the other hand, is real; a down-to-earth player who in the space of one year has moved up more than 100 places in the WTA rankings through hard graft, sustained hope and perseverance.

Born in Sydney, Australia, she moved with her Hungarian parents to Eastbourne, England, when she was 14. She started to play at school at eight, and represented Australia until 2012.

There's even a fourth country involved in her following her dream. Konta spent 15 months in northern Spain in her teens, and her coaches remain Esteban Carril and Jose Manuel Garcia. Even her mental coach, Juan Coto, is a Spaniard.

Confusing? Not in the slightest. "Australia is my birth home," she told journalists this week, "but Great Britain is where my heart is."


The Australian-born Johanna Konta, despite having her funding cut by Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, wants to play in the Federation Cup for her adopted country. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Bourne was a fictional character of the 1980s, a spy who changed his identity to whatever country he passed through. Konta, on the other hand, is real; a down-to-earth player who in the space of one year has moved up more than 100 places in the WTA rankings through hard graft, sustained hope and perseverance.

End of conversation, guys. The lady is no longer of no fixed abode. She is British by choice, and in the world of sports that's perfectly fine.

Diego Costa was born in Brazil, but pulls on the red shirt of Spain or the blue of Chelsea.

Even the People's Republic of China is beginning to debate, albeit not yet at government level, whether the growing numbers of Brazilians attracted to mainland China for the yuan might one day be granted citizenship.

Chinese historians claim that football was invented there, and not in England. So when might we expect the world's largest population to play regularly on the World Cup stage?

Thus far, suggestions of China nationalising Brazilians for the convenience of sport is a figment of the imagination. President Xi Jinping is a declared follower of football, but importing foreigners into the national jersey has not yet been on his reform agenda.

The rest of the world has long adopted winners as their own. Way back in 1975, the 18-year-old Martina Navratilova reached the US Open semi-finals and went straight to the offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service in New York City to seek permission to defect from Czechoslovakia.

One month later, she received the coveted work permit (the green card) and within six years she was a US citizen.

Nationality then, and even more so today, is what you wish for yourself - if you have a skill.

The Konta family have such skills. Mother Gabriella is a dentist, her father Gabor a hotel manager, and Johanna dreamt of being the world No. 1 female tennis player since she was 11.

That dream took her to a tennis academy in northern Spain even before the family migrated from Sydney. But, as is common in sport, it became a long, sometimes lonely, life for a growing girl.

Little over a year ago, after Britain's Lawn Tennis Association cut her funding, Konta had to tell her coaches that she didn't know how she could afford to pay their salaries and meet the costs of tennis' often unseen so-called satellite circuit.

She was around 150th in the world. Britain in effect told her she was on her own. The Spanish trio said they would work for less until she made the breakthrough.

Things turned towards autumn last year. Konta played well in the Wuhan Open in Beijing where, she said, meeting Venus Williams was the highlight of her career to date.

That was quickly eclipsed by her form at the US Open, where she reached the quarter-finals.

Among the questions being asked of her was what had suddenly clicked to put a 24-year-old qualifier into the frame of mind to win match after match with such consistency.

"The way I am on court," she replied, "is not the way I was born. I've grown up, and a lot of hard work has been put in to get me to the point where I am now. I'm a lot happier because I worked on my enjoyment - and I'll work harder and get better."

It sounds simple: Girl dreams, girl meets coaches who believe in her and who push the work ethic. A world citizen goes where it takes, and to what extent it takes, to defy those who doubted her.

The US Open wasn't a "click". It was the basis for the confidence she took to Melbourne for the first Grand Slam of 2016, and all the way to the semi-final.

Still not the ultimate dream, No. 1. Still plenty of hard work on her game and her confidence. But the Aussie "homecoming" banked her just over US$500,000 (S$712,000), more than the sum of all her winnings from previous years put together.

The Spaniards will be paid in full now. The Brits who stopped her funding are mighty pleased that Konta is eager to represent Britain in the Federation Cup.

And the Aussies who wanted to reclaim her as one of their own?

They got their fullest answer when the tennis version of Jason Bourne was asked how it felt to be leaving Melbourne this time as a losing semi-finalist compared to leaving last year in the qualifying round?

"Not very different," she mused. "Both times I was looking forward to going home to see my family and my boyfriend.

"That remains the same. I go home to see my parents, spend some time in my own bed. That remains the same."

So grounded. Such a true Brit. G'day, Aussie.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Hard-working Konta's self-belief proof of a Bourne-again player'. Print Edition | Subscribe