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Tennis: Konta's meteoric rise from outsider to Major contender

Johanna Konta, a title contender at the Australian Open, is enjoying a career high ranking of No. 9.
Johanna Konta, a title contender at the Australian Open, is enjoying a career high ranking of No. 9.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MELBOURNE • Self-analysis is not something such a private person as Johanna Konta relishes talking about. If she is feeling a particular high or low, she views it as a personal matter, so do not expect her to declare or acknowledge she is a potential Grand Slam champion.

The upward slope on her personal graph of tennis progression, however, makes it hard for her to ignore the fact that she is now a member of the elite group in women's tennis.

Born to Hungarian parents in Sydney, she moved to England at the age of 14. The 25-year-old switched her sporting allegiance to Britain after she became a British citizen in 2012.

Slowly but surely, she is a contender to become the first Australian Open female winner from Britain since Virginia Wade in 1972.

From the evidence of the way Konta improved her level with each round to win last week's Apia International in Sydney, obliterating Agnieszka Radwanska to win Friday's final 6-4, 6-2 at the Ken Rosewall Arena, it is hard to ignore the ninth seed's credentials.

Her game is all about power, and that is what wins matches and titles. She is hitting the ball with a fierce consistency, serving well, and punishing loose shots with ruthless accuracy. Radwanska allows the player across the net from her very little charity, but she was powerless to stop 32 clean winners fly beyond her racket.

REAPING THE REWARDS

It's a nice feeling to be where I am and I take it as a reward along the way for all the hard work myself and my team have put in every day.

JOHANNA KONTA , the British tennis star, reflects on winning her second career WTA title at the Apia International in Sydney.

Since starting the year under the guidance of new Belgian coach Wim Fissette, Konta has won all but one of her nine matches. She appears to be one of the opponents her peers most fear going into a tournament at which she reached the semi-finals a year ago.

Celebrating her Sydney victory with a ham and cheese toasted sandwich and a glass of Coca-Cola, she said: "It's a nice feeling to be where I am and I take it as a reward along the way for all the hard work myself and my team have put in every day.

"However, there is still a long, long way to go. I know I play on Tuesday in Melbourne but I haven't looked to see who I face. I'll do that when I get to the tournament."

Her first-round opponent is the Belgian veteran Kirsten Flipkens, a player Konta has beaten twice before. But she lost 6-3, 6-7 (7-9), 6-1 when the pair last met in Mexico nine months ago.

Thereafter her draw is not without danger, with former world No. 1s Serena Williams and Caroline Wozniacki, along with WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova and the highly fancied US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova, in contention to provide her with tests.

Back in the days of Wade's pomp, there were only four other non-Australian contestants in a first-round draw of 32, and Wade left with a winner's cheque worth the equivalent of £1,231 (S$2,141).

This year, a significantly higher number of different nations figure in the women's singles, and the champion's bank account will be bolstered by A$3.7 million (S$3.96 million).

Konta is not one to dwell too much on the past and she stubbornly refuses to speculate on the future. She would not care to recall that just two years ago, ranked 147th in the world, she lost in the first round of qualifying.

But after winning her second career WTA title on Friday, Konta - named the Tour's most improved player for 2016 - has risen to a career high ranking of No. 9.

Such a rise is hugely impressive to those who travel alongside her on the WTA Tour.

Fellow Briton Heather Watson, 24, said: "Jo is just playing so well and I am hugely impressed with the way she has improved on the court, week in and week out.

"It's a long time since she lost in the first round of a tournament and she's proved to me and a lot of other girls than once you get on a roll with confidence, your game can run and run."

Konta has earned herself the nickname of "The Process", after the way she habitually refers to her tennis career.

Illustrating the habit, she said after beating Radwanska: "I do feel within myself that I am playing a good level. So far, it's been consistent over the past two weeks.

"But it's no reflection of how the Australian Open will go and no reflection of how the year will go in general."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 16, 2017, with the headline 'Konta's meteoric rise from outsider to Major contender'. Print Edition | Subscribe