Konta re­solves to put poor 2018 be­hind her

The Guardian - - SPORT - Kevin Mitchell

If Johanna Konta is to shed the tor­por that stran­gled her ten­nis in 2018, she could hardly wish for a more open bat­tle­field than the one spread out be­fore her at the 2019 Aus­tralian Open – apart from be­ing in the same quar­ter of the draw as the 23-ma­jor cham­pion, Ser­ena Wil­liams.

As the British No 1 pre­pares for her first match against the 47th ranked Ajla Toml­janovic to­mor­row, she jos­tles with a grow­ing num­ber of con­tenders who also will have el­e­vated am­bi­tions, all of them aware that, even with the re­turn of Wil­liams after an ab­sence of two years, a nailed-on favourite is hard to iden­tify.

There has been a dif­fer­ent cham­pion in each of the past eight ma­jors, with three break­ing through for the first time in 2018. While Si­mona Halep, who won at Roland Gar­ros, will ex­tend her to­tal stay at No 1 in the world to 64 weeks (only nine play­ers have done bet­ter), 11 ri­vals could dis­place her at the end of the fort­night.

Konta is not among them, hav­ing tum­bled from No9 last Jan­uary, through to 50 and back to 37, but she ar­rives with a fresh per­spec­tive and a new coach in Dim­itri Zavialoff.

As she said in Lon­don last month be­fore re­turn­ing to the coun­try where she was born 27 years ago, she fears no­body. “No player can step on court against me and feel con­fi­dent that they will come out the win­ner.” Rarely has she spo­ken so bullishly, which might re­flect Zavialoff’s in­flu­ence or her own re­al­i­sa­tion that she can­not af­ford an­other av­er­age sea­son.

If the qual­ity is more evenly spread, so is the dan­ger. As Konta re­marked of the field: “They fun­da­men­tally are just bet­ter play­ers. There are fewer holes in play­ers’ games. The depth has got a lot stronger.”

On her ar­rival in Mel­bourne, how­ever, she cau­tioned that she and Zavialoff are in the early stages of their col­lab­o­ra­tion. “A lot of the work we’re do­ing is not go­ing to nec­es­sar­ily have im­me­di­ate ef­fect. A lot of the things take time to im­ple­ment. Like with any­thing, it does take time to make it a habit and also one you don’t have to think about. I have that aware­ness I’m try­ing to do that in the match, as well, but it will take time.”

And she is wise enough to con­cede: “Maybe Ser­ena’s a slight ex­cep­tion but I think she’s get­ting tougher and tougher matches be­cause peo­ple are start­ing to be­lieve in them­selves.”

If Konta beats the Za­greb-born Aus­tralian Toml­janovic (the main per­son in Nick Kyr­gios’s off-court life), she has a way more for­mi­da­ble task in get­ting past the two-time ma­jor cham­pion Gar­biñe Mugu­ruza, who strug­gles for con­sis­tency but is ca­pa­ble of bril­liance, too.

It does not get much eas­ier be­yond that. The sev­enth seed, Karolina Pliskova, would be a likely op­po­nent in the fourth round and then Wil­liams – if the 37-year-old Amer­i­can takes care of her sec­tion, which in­cludes her sis­ter Venus and Halep.

There is a sideshow to all this, and not a par­tic­u­larly savoury one. While women’s ten­nis is soon to lose its guardian an­gel in Andy Mur­ray, oth­ers in the game re­main who are not so dis­posed to the cause, in­clud­ing two who are em­broiled in the slow-rum­bling power play that has in­fected the ATP.

Justin Gimel­stob, once a fringe player on the Tour who has worked in the me­dia, has sur­vived as a board mem­ber de­spite fac­ing an as­sault charge in Los An­ge­les, to which he has pleaded not guilty. The charge arises from an in­ci­dent at a party in Venice Beach last Oc­to­ber.

Gimel­stob, John Is­ner’s coach and a one-time ri­val to the ATP ex­ec­u­tive chair­man and pres­i­dent, Chris Ker­mode, is a flam­boy­ant char­ac­ter who at­tracted op­pro­brium for an in­fa­mous 2008 ra­dio in­ter­view in which he de­scribed var­i­ous women play­ers in un­com­pli­men­tary terms, from “bitch” to “sex­pot”. He was forced to apol­o­gise but it lives on his record. His re­cent trou­bles, mean­while, do not seem to bother lead­ing fig­ures in the men’s game enough to eject him from the board.

No­vak Djokovic, pres­i­dent of the play­ers’ coun­cil, said on Fri­day he was “com­fort­able” with Gimel­stob’s con­tin­ued pres­ence be­cause “that’s what we de­cided in our meet­ings and con­fer­ence calls in the last cou­ple of months”. As the world No 1 pointed out, “That’s an on­go­ing process and trial. Those are all now al­le­ga­tions in the mo­ment.”

Djokovic was sim­i­larly sup­port­ive of an­other coun­cil mem­ber, the Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky, some of whose pro­nounce­ments on the women’s game have been more ne­an­derthal than com­pli­men­tary.

“Sure, there’s al­ways a per­son or two or three that in the past has stated some­thing that is maybe not ap­pro­pri­ate,” Djokovic said. He said Stakhovsky, whose high point as a player was beat­ing Roger Fed­erer at Wim­ble­don, had con­trib­uted much “in a pos­i­tive way, try­ing to rep­re­sent a lot of play­ers, es­pe­cially that are ranked be­tween 50 and 100”. He added: “Cer­tainly you pointed out the neg­a­tive. I can’t say much about that. But he’s one of the 10 play­ers in the coun­cil. There’s a lot of pos­i­tives to point out, as well.”

Djokovic was less forth­com­ing on the as­ser­tion that an in­for­mal play­ers’ coun­cil vote on Satur­day had gone against Ker­mode 5-4 and that there was a push to oust the in­no­va­tive Bri­ton.

“The de­ci­sion hasn’t been made on the pres­i­dent,” he said. “He’s still pres­i­dent. He’ll re­main pres­i­dent till the end of his term. Whether there’s a re­newal or not, it’s go­ing to be de­cided in the next pe­riod.”

‘No player can step on court against me and feel con­fi­dent that they will come out the win­ner’


Johanna Konta has served no­tice that she in­tends to be a force at the Aus­tralian Open with a new coach, Dim­itri Zavialoff, in her cor­ner

Even with Ser­ena Wil­liams’s re­turn the field is open

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