Love not war
Konta coach tells her to have fun in quarter-final
When Johanna Konta walks out today for her US Open quarter-final, she will try to emulate Roger Federer by treating the whole occasion with a sense of playfulness. “It’s not the end of life,” Dimitri Zavialoff, her coach, said. “Not a war.”
The stress levels are sure to be high in Arthur Ashe Stadium, especially as the woman Konta will face – fifth seed Elina Svitolina – has beaten her in all four of their previous meetings. But Zavialoff does not like to gee his players up before such showpieces.
Instead, he tries to bring out their inner child, reminding them why they first became fascinated by this quixotic sport.
“It is more about playing than fighting,” Zavialoff told reporters. “When you are a kid, you play and you are happy when you win. To have a perspective, to make a distance with it, I think it helps.
“Sometimes the tendency to say ‘fight’ makes the enjoyment disappear in a way,” added Zavialoff, who speaks so softly that he almost needs subtitles. “I’m living in Switzerland, and there’s one player [Federer] who loves the game. You can sense it. [With Konta] we just come back to very simple things – to play and enjoy. It seems stupid, but it’s not.”
At this elite level, this pacifist mindset might seem counter-intuitive. Many players thrive on the concept of tennis as hand-to-hand combat. But Konta’s personality is more cerebral than confrontational. And by challenging herself to bring her best stuff, rather than framing each match as a face-off with her opponent, she has transformed her whole narrative.
After a gloomy 2018, Konta has been reborn since teaming up with Zavialoff in October. Not only has she prospered at the slams this season, where her 14 victories put her equal fourth on the tour, but she has been phenomenally effective in deciding sets. Nobody can match her win-loss record of 17-3.
After Konta’s 6-7, 6-3, 7-5 victory over third seed Karolina Pliskova on Sunday, she was asked why she has proved so durable in 2019. “I don’t think there’s anything specific behind it,” she replied, before alluding to her physical conditioning and general match-toughness after an active year.
During the French Open, though, she added a new phrase to her narrow repertoire of post-match quotes: “I thought I played the game well.” Having heard Zavialoff ’s explanation, this apparently artless comment may have referred to his preference for a softer approach.
“If some players say they’re happy to step on court and think they’re fighting and it helps them, what can I say?” Zavialoff said. “But we take it this way: you play tennis matches, you win, you lose, and then life goes on. I invite her to really appreciate any victory she has and we try to minimise losses, we don’t make a big deal out of them.”
Admittedly, there have been two big defeats this year for Konta to digest: the first against a player (Marketa Vondrousova) at the start of her career, and the second against someone (Barbora Strycova) approaching the end of hers. Coming at the French Open and Wimbledon respectively, this pair of sickeners arrived just when Konta seemed to stand within touching distance of her first major final.
In each case, it felt as if the pressure of starting as favourite had been her undoing.
Against Pliskova, by contrast, she showed remarkable coolness down the home straight as she threaded winner after winner up the line. While the tennis was brutally aggressive, she remained emotionally detached and precise.
Similar rigour will be required today if Konta is to end her losing streak against Svitolina. At least that statistic – and her opponent’s superior ranking – means that she will start without the dreaded “favourite” tag.
Svitolina has tallied up 14 grandslam wins of her own this year, and is known as one of the doughtiest defenders on the tour. She hits far fewer winners than Konta (just 48 in New York to date, as opposed to 136), but also commits precious few unforced errors (65 as against 104).
Svitolina used to live in Chelsea when she was dating England cricketer Reece Topley, but has moved to Geneva since she started going out with French No 1 Gael Monfils last year.
“It’s more calm,” she said, when asked what impact Monfils has had on her results. “I’m more open with my coach and also with Gael about the tennis and my feelings.”
As Zavialoff almost said, it is better to make love than war.
Pacifist mindset: Dimitri Zavialoff does not like the concept of tennis as a ‘fight’ between two players