Konta resolves to put poor 2018 behind her
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