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13 July 2017updated 20 Aug 2021 9:18am

How Johanna Konta learnt to control her mind and stun Wimbledon

The UK tennis player faces Venus Williams in the Wimbledon semi finals. It's going to be epic. 

By Daniel harris

When Real Madrid won the Champions League in 2000, Roy Keane noted that amid all the usual winners’ histrionics, Raúl, the team’s legendary footballer and symbol, remained calm. This, reckoned Keane, was because he knew that winning the Champions League was what he was meant to do; his talent deserved it and his hard work earned it.

Though she has not won anything yet, Johanna Konta’s demeanour is similar. In making her way to the Wimbledon semi finals – the first British woman to do so since 1978 – she has enjoyed the moments of victory, but re-established her equilibrium immediately afterwards. Because she believes in herself, success does not throw her, and her ambition extends beyond simply doing well. She might not expect to win, but she absolutely intends to. 

Born in Australia to Hungarian parents, Konta would probably have taken up swimming had she not suffered from ear infections; instead, she began visiting the tennis centre opposite her school. Her competitive, introverted nature isolated her from many of her peers. When she was 12, her parents decided to home-school her, and two years later, in 2005, they moved the family to Eastbourne. Johanna, meanwhile, spent 15 months improving her game at the Sanchez Casal academy in Barcelona.

It was not until 2012 that Konta became a British citizen. This was also the year she made her name as a professional, winning two qualifying rounds and two rounds of the US Open. But then her career stalled. Though Konta’s talent was undoubted, she found the the mental demands of elite sport difficult. In particular, she struggled to express herself and wilted under pressure; or, put another way, she did not have the means to exploit her ability. So in 2014 she travelled to Gijon, Spain, and began working on the technical aspects of her game with the coach Esteban Carril; Carril then introduced her to Juan Coto, a mind coach, and the pair worked together on controlling thoughts and emotions. Under Coto, she became adept at handling big moments – learning how to seize them, not seize up. 

Within a year, Konta had shot up the rankings into the top 20, reaching the semi-finals of the 2016 Australian Open. Then, nine months later at the US Open, playing a second round match against Tsvetana Pironkova, she collapsed due to ill health before, somehow – astonishingly – finding the strength to win. 

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Just as success beckoned, tragedy struck. In November, shortly after Konta broke into the world’s top 10, Coto died by suicide, and shortly after that she split with Carril. But her fortitude remained undimmed. Retaining the teachings of both, she righted herself such that many good judges now consider her a likely Grand Slam champion and world number one. 

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On court, Konta is an artisan not an artist. Her game is underpinned by a monstrously reliable serve – in the first set of her quarter-final against Simona Halep, she made an incredible 30 of 32 first attempts. Her groundstrokes, meanwhile, though nothing to look at, are plenty to get back, the result of very basic, very specific, very effective drilling. She marks out two large circles between baseline and service line, then hits balls at them, hard. Consequently, she is most at home on a hard court where the bounce is predictable and the tennis at its most formulaic. At Wimbledon, her matches have been dazzling more for their intensity than their inventiveness. 

As is generally the case, Konta’s style of play bears significant resemblance to her personality. Keen on routine,  she repeatedly, compulsively, references her “process”, though no one but her knows quite what it is. Her press conferences are dull and her fun restrained. 

But she is not just Theresa May with talent. Those who know her say she is interesting and enjoyable to be with. It is also not hard to grasp why she gives away so little of herself. She is player not personality. She reserves her thoughts for those she cares about, rather than providing fodder for those she’ll never meet. Why should she endure the outcry that comes with asserting any opinion of any kind? Never primed for success, because her improvement has been so sudden, her profile has not increased gradually but exponentially. And though she acknowledges her responsibility to grow the game, this will primarily be achieved by winning matches on the court, not dancing for biscuits off it.   

This is especially likely as, in the absence of Serena Williams, there is a vacuum at the top of women’s tennis. Just last month, 20-year-old Jelena Ostapenko became the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933. At Wimbledon, Konta, seeded six, is the highest-ranked player left. But in Venus Williams she faces a hero of the game; a five-time champion without a Slam in nine years and, aged 37, without much time in which to win another. On Tuesday, she was brutal in disposing of Ostapenko, and is the one competitor certain to handle the occasion at least as well as Konta. 

Mike Tyson famously said that “everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth,” and similarly, everybody has process until Venus Williams serves at them – Williams’s serve does not give a shit for process. And there is yet more to it than that. In Konta’s match against Halep, there were tie-breaks in each of the first two sets and just one break in the second, which is to say that they played a lot of points – and yet Halep made just nine unforced errors. On the face of it, this reflects remarkable accuracy and discipline, but in reality it’s almost embarrassing, revealing a player too nervous to attack the lines and happy to let her opponent be the aggressor. 

Against Williams, this will not happen. Konta will be faced with a confident opponent who knows exactly what to do to win. Accordingly, their match will not be a test of will but a test of skill, the outcome of which is impossible to predict. But there is one thing of which we can be sure: it is going to be epic.