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Konta’s big breakthrough

• Posted in Tennis • By JoeBaker

All the top players in tennis have had that one tournament victory that really announced them to the game. A confirmation that their steady rise had been no fluke. A statement that they were there to stay at the summit of the sport.

You cannot help but feel that Great Britain’s female number 1 Johanna Konta has just had hers. Winning the Miami Open was the biggest triumph of her career to date; the tournament being one of the premier events of the tour outside of the four Grand Slams. Whilst 2016 was her breakthrough year, this was undoubtedly her breakthrough win.

It was the clearest indication yet that Konta can now consistently tough it out against the best in the most pressurised environments. Just look at the players she beat to get her hands on a third WTA title that moved her up to her highest ever world ranking of 7. In the final she ended Caroline Wozniacki’s impressive winning streak, a player with 25 titles to date and a former world number 1, comfortably in straight sets. In her quarter-final she came through a tense and tight three-setter against another established top 10 player in Simona Halep, before beating the great Venus Williams in the semi-final. This was no easy route to the final – Konta picked off the very best. She is now rightly in exalted company.

A common criticism that was previously held against Konta was her mental frailty when the going got tough. Flashes of brilliance were too frequently undermined by lapses in concentration. The fear, nerves and self-doubt have been crushed for good. The big-name players no longer intimidate her because she has become one of them. Watching Konta in Miami, as it was during her impressive run to the Australian Open semi-finals in 2016 and quarters this year, was to see a player completely at ease with herself and full of confidence. She has developed a calm, methodical approach during matches that allows her to finish opponents off when she is on top and stay composed when she is struggling. The impact of her late life coach Juan Coto cannot be underestimated, as well as her being one of the hardest working players on the women’s circuit.

There is now a real chance for Konta to take the next step forward and become one of the top 3 players in the world. The legendary Serena Williams, who is now 35, will likely say goodbye to the game once she surpasses Margaret Court’s all-time slam tally, which surely won’t be far away. Meanwhile, the current world number 1 Angelique Kerber is struggling to find the consistency that saw her win the Australia and US Opens. The same could be said of many of the chasing pack that Konta currently finds herself in. The likes of the aforementioned Halep and others including Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Pliskova and Agnieszka Radwanska are all supremely talented but have so far failed to really challenge the hegemony at the top. There is a gap that Konta has the potential to fill.

It is remarkable just how far Konta has come in such a short space of time. To put it into context, at the end of the 2014 season she was ranked 150 in the world. Now she is not only fixating her gaze on the top 5 but is in second place on the Road to Singapore, the season finale. Her run at last year’s Australian Open, her first appearance in the main draw, took everyone by surprise and truly announced her to the game. She built upon that success and momentum by winning her first WTA event later in the year at the Stanford Classic and by reaching the final of the China Open. This year she has already won two titles, the other being at the Sydney International in January. Only one player, Karolina Pliskova, has a better record so far in 2017 of 19 wins from 22 matches. The fact that Martina Navratilova has said that Konta can now beat anyone on her day is testament to the progress she has made, as is her being voted the 2016 WTA Most Improved Player of the Year.

Many will argue that to be really seen as one of the game’s best, Konta needs to regularly reach the latter stages of the Grand Slam tournaments. And start winning them. Indeed, notwithstanding her fantastic efforts the last two years in Melbourne, Konta has only progressed past the third round of a Slam twice, reaching the fourth round of the US Open in 2013 and 2014. Finding consistency at these events and getting that first Slam should now be her primary objective. The best chance of this happening would surely be on the hard courts of Melbourne and New York, although there is the hope that she can develop her grass court game and one day give the UK its first female Wimbledon Champion since 1977.

With Andy Murray still at the top of the men’s game, and Konta announcing her arrival at the next level of the sport, this is an extremely exciting time and a new era for British tennis. Konta is the first female player from the UK to break into the WTA top 10 in thirty years - after decades of frustration, our women’s game could finally have found the superstar it has been looking for. 

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