Love not war

Konta coach tells her to have fun in quar­ter-fi­nal

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Front Page - By Si­mon Briggs

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

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