There is a peculiar, especially within the British psyche of how we treat our successful athletes. Sure we love them when they’re winning, and they can be as British as they can be, but one of our biggest bug-bears is when they lose, how quickly they revert to [somewhere-else]-born.
No more has this been evident as with Andy Murray, who despite three Grand Slams and a tumbling of records set by the legendary Fred Perry, will still be referred to as ‘the Scot’ when he loses. We saw this rear its ugly ahead again when Johanna Konta, our most successful British women’s tennis player since Jo Durie in the 1980’s reached her second Grand Slam semi-final in two years, and yet areas of the press continue to focus on the fact she was born in Australia to Hungarian parents.
Konta is naturally a reserved, private person, and in any press conference, stationed behind an imposing desk on a raised platform will give measured answers belying the massive improvement to her early days where it is fair to say emotions often got the better of her.
Whereas in 2016 she closed out tough three-setters on her way to the Australian Open semi-final, previously she would struggle to close a door, much less the match. All that changed with her work with former Spanish coach Esteban Carril and late sports psychologist Juan Coto – who helped her focus on the process and not the results, which have been clear for all to see.
But get Konta around a table (round, or otherwise) and you see a very different character. She is instantly more relaxed, funny and sharp. She joined us in Cincinnati fresh from having done a series of video interviews and little fun segments including singing away to Taylor Swift with animations to make her look like a unicorn! The secret to her success?
“I’m doing well actually, I had a fun couple of videos out there. I got Canal Sony wrong and said SanalCony, so … I commit (laughing). I do try to make the best out of it and try to enjoy to enjoy it for what it is, and always an opportunity to improve (laughs again).”
A different pool of keyboard warriors
We are becoming more and more used to seeing players playing games on camera for the bite-sized social-media focussed segments on both tours. But of course there is also the flip-side with internet trolls plaguing both sides of the tour. From time to time players will highlight some of the abuse they face for losses, and while it is sadly becoming par for the course, the players themselves find different coping mechanisms.
Konta explained: “Unfortunately they exist through all areas of the game. I don’t think I actually get more than I did when I was playing the challenger tour, I think it’s roughly the same. It’s just a different pool of people. Unfortunately there’s a lot of keyboard warriors out there, who’s got a little too much time on their hands and not enough imagination to do actually something with it. Unfortunately it’s the world we live in.
“I mean definitely think it’s important to pick your moments. Also if possible, not to do it yourself, not to carry out for yourself, but unfortunately you can’t be fighting with everyone. I generally don’t reply – block (x7) – [laughter].”
Konta not surprisingly relishes her privacy off court, but she is also smart enough to realise that there is no avoiding social media, especially in the tennis universe. Always the consummate professional, and looking for the best ways to deliver, she admitted:
“I do my own posting just because I do try and be authentic. Social media is not something that comes naturally to me, it’s something I’ve tried to work on because I understand the positives of it as well, and letting the people who do commit their time to follow my career and support me to try to give them an insight a little bit into my life.
“I’m generally a private person, so again it’s something that I’ve worked on to open up a little bit more, but I think it’s also important that I don’t spend all my time on there. So I do give some of it to my agent.”
It does lead to some amusement though. Boyfriend Jackson Wade is a photographer and videographer and perhaps doesn’t see the same things as funny, as Konta laughingly explained:
“I guess for me it’s just being as true to myself as I can so the things that I do post are things that I want to post, or things that I think are funny. I have moments (and you could probably ask my boyfriend this) I’m like ‘oh that’s so funny, that’s so good, I’m gonna post’ and he’s like [puts head in hands] ‘ohh noo’ (laughing).”
While she wants the chance to stay longer in the tournament to sharpen up ahead of a week of practice for the US Open, there is an inkling to head to near-by King’s Island – the amusement park you can see from the windows of the media centre.
She said: I am a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, but I haven’t been to a theme park in such a long time. I know Andrew (Fitzpatrick) is keen on going as well. Wim (Fisette) I know is definitely not keen but we’ll work on Wim, so hopefully we can all [go] – “Team building” …
It all goes back to business though, as Konta progressed to face face Simona Halep in the semi-final. Konta leads their head to head 3-2 (3-0 at WTA tour level), but of course takes nothing for granted.
She said, after her round three match: “I think both of us compete very well. So I think both of us are looking to really not give each other a foothold in the match. She’s an incredible mover, and she makes an incredible amount of balls. You definitely do feel like you’re playing a little bit like against a wall when you play Simona.
“I guess I always just look to try to bring my game to the table, just try to dictate as much as I can, and really take control of the points as much as possible, but also having a massive level of acceptance that she’s going to make me hit a lot of balls and it’s not always going to go my way.
“I think accepting that – not just against her but against the best players in the world – is very important, because not everything is on your racquet.”
Either way – she should feel happy with her preparations, meticulous to the last.
Konta plays for a place in the Western & Southern Open semi-finals on Friday night (Midnight Saturday, BST).
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