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Konta is keeping feet on ground despite meteoric rise

By Paul Newman

Published 21/05/2016

Ready for battle: Johanna Konta is focused on success at the French Open in Paris
Ready for battle: Johanna Konta is focused on success at the French Open in Paris

what a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago this week Johanna Konta was battling her way through the qualifying tournament for the French Open, because her world ranking of No 143 was not high enough to secure direct entry into Roland Garros.

Victories in qualifying over three of the sport's less familiar names - Jovana Jaksic, Elizaveta Kulichkova and Clothilde De Bernardi - took Konta through to the main draw, where she lost in the first round to Denisa Allertova.

Contrast that scenario with this week as the 25-year-old Briton prepares for the start of this year's French Open tomorrow.

As the world No 22 she was ranked high enough not only to go straight into yesterday's draw - German Julia Goerges stands in her way - but she will also be seeded.

In the last 12 months she has beaten five top-10 opponents and become the first British woman for 33 years to reach the singles semi-finals at a Grand Slam tournament.

Such a rapid rise would surely have turned the heads of some players, but there appears to be no danger of Konta failing to keep her feet on the ground. Her stunning improvement has been as much the result of her mental approach as of anything she does with her forehands and backhands.

There are times when Konta's tennis philosophy can sound like a mantra, but she has clearly found a way of thinking that works for her. Take this response to a question as to how it feels to be seeded at Roland Garros, where prize money totals £24m, less than a year after she was playing at tournaments where the a total prize fund was just $50,000 (about £34,000).

"I don't think circumstances change who you are as a person," Konta said.

"I don't believe they change your values, unless you willingly would like them to. I try to stay very true to the kind of person that I want to be and the kind of athlete and the kind of professional I continually strive to be."

But does it not feel very different to be playing in tournaments full of top-quality players compared with the lower-ranked opponents she was meeting on a regular basis last year?

"You'd be surprised," Konta said. "I truly believe that it is just as difficult - if not more so - in that bracket where players are ranked between No 100 and No 250 in the world. It's incredibly competitive because everybody is trying to achieve the same thing. Everyone is trying to make that breakthrough into the top 100.

"It's incredibly shaping and I'm very grateful for the journey that I've been on, because I truly believe that the experiences that I've accumulated are what is aiding me to compete at the level that I'm competing at."

She added: "I like to keep things in perspective. Some of the tournaments I played last year were incredible in their own right. I met some amazing people. I stayed in housing with some amazing families. I wouldn't say that it was a bad thing to have been there."

From being someone who had difficulty handling high-pressure situations, Konta has transformed herself into a player who keeps a tight control on her emotions on the court. She takes her work with her sports psychologist, Juan Coto, every bit as seriously as her training on court or in the gym. Her daily routine includes both physical work and mental exercises.

"When I go into the gym, I'm working on getting my muscles stronger and I try to treat my mind in the same manner," she said. "It was interesting at the start of the year. I'd done a lot of work, both physically and mentally, in pre-season, but when I got back to playing matches it felt as though my mind had been on holiday.

"At first it was difficult really to get back into that frame of mind and start utilising those good habits. I think it's just a habit that you keep trying to reinforce every day, because the more you do that the more smooth it becomes, though it's never easy. That's how we try to keep working on it. It's like a muscle."

Nevertheless, the calmness Konta has demonstrated on court does not necessarily permeate other areas of her life.

"Interestingly all the things that I work on in my tennis - staying in the present, staying calm, enjoying the battle - just do not transfer into any other competitive situation," she said.

"If I play cards or anything I'm the stroppiest loser you could ever see. I threw a pack of cards across the room once.

"We also stopped playing Monopoly in my household after I made my sister cry. I was 11 and she was 14. I bought the property she specifically asked me not to buy - and I did it deliberately."

Despite all the media interest in her which kicked off at last year's US Open, where she became only the second British woman to reach the fourth round for 24 years, Konta still insists that "nobody recognises me at home" and that she takes suggestions of fame "with a pinch of salt".

Being on the other side of the world meant that she had little idea of the interest she had created back home in January with her run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open.

"My parents got the full force of that," she said. "They went on the London Underground and looked at a newspaper. They thought there might be something about me in it. They found a report on one page.

"Then they turned the page and there was another whole spread on me - and then more on the next page. There was a picture of me with my family on one page and they thought: 'Oh my God, everyone is looking at our daughter.' They didn't know where to look."

Konta describes herself as "an animal of routine" in her daily life. "I do take a lot of comfort from structure, from monotonous things," she said. "Some of my friends find it so boring, but I like it.

"I enjoy having the same thing for breakfast. We stay in a very nice apartment in Paris. We go to the same supermarket there and I always know exactly where everything is. It was the same in Melbourne. I went to the same shop because I knew where everything was."

So will she be doing the cooking in Paris? "No, I eat," Konta said with a smile. "If my mum's there or my boyfriend, they usually do more of the cooking than me. I do help prepare. But I'm much better at eating."

Belfast Telegraph

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