Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Could this be the year Johanna Konta wins her first Grand Slam?

Johanna Konta
Johanna Konta had Britain daring to dream when she surged through to the Wimbledon semi-finals with a famous victory over second seed Simona Halep last summer. But it was not to be her year as she succumbed to a spirited defeat against the evergreen Venus Williams in the semis. Optimism abounded in the aftermath of the tournament, which catapulted Konta up to fourth in the ATP world rankings, and the nation had a star to rally behind. However, the British number one then suffered a dramatic dip in form and she has tumbled down the world rankings. She is now 26 years old and should be approaching her prime, but her chances of success this year are hanging in the balance.

Amid Andy Murray’s continuing injury woes – the three-time Grand Slam winner had hip surgery earlier this year – Konta represents Britain’s best chance of singles glory at Wimbledon this year. Kyle Edmund is an intriguing prospect, but he lacks polish right now, while Heather Watson is a long way off challenging for big tournaments, so it is down to Konta to fly the flag. She has all the weapons to mix it with the best in the business, and she has beaten several leading stars during her career.

Konta benefits from a massive serve, a powerful forehand with plenty of topspin and an aggressive backhand. She attacks from the baseline, but she is also pretty strong defensively and covers the court well. She was clearly suffering a mental block towards the end of 2017: after crashing out in the quarter-finals in Toronto at the start of her hard court swing she lost in the first round at four straight tournaments. That caused Konta to drop out of the world’s top eight and fail to make the ATP World Finals, and it evoked memories of the anxiety and collapses that blighted her early career.

After much soul searching, the Brit parted ways with long-standing coach Wim Fissette and announced she would not compete again that season. She returned this year determined to start afresh after hiring a new coach, Michael Joyce, who guided Maria Sharapova to an extremely successful spell between 2004 and 2011. Any fans hoping for an immediate improvement from a galvanised player were to be disappointed as she was eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International and the first round of the Sydney International. She could only make it to the second round of this year’s first Grand Slam, the Australian Open, where she lost to world number 123 Bernarda Pera.

Despite the dismal result, Joyce is encouraged by what he has seen from Konta and believes she has what it takes to win a Grand Slam. “When the opportunity came up with Jo I knew right off the bat she’s a contender to get to the top,” he said. “She’s proven that, she’s gotten pretty close.” He added that a few years ago only three of four women were capable of winning a big tournament, but that right now there are more than 20 in the mix, and that Konta has the talent to usurp them all.

Serena Williams has dominated in recent years, but she is now 36 – a ripe old age in tennis – and has been out after giving birth. That has left the women’s game wide open, and surprise Grand Slam winners such as Sloane Stephens and Jelena Ostapenko have emerged. Unlike the men’s game, where Roger Federer dominates, the women’s is full of intrigue and excitement right now. Konta could well exploit the chaos and claim a famous victory at one of the three remaining Slams this year.

Grass is her favourite surface and Wimbledon looks like her best chance of success. If you check the sports spread betting markets and fixed odds lines you will see that there is a shorter price on her winning at SW19 than either the French Open or the Australian. She has never had any joy on clay and has never been past the first round at Roland Garros, so you can write that one off. Her meltdown in North America last year is still fresh in the memory, so Wimbledon, where she will be roared on by partisan crowds, offers her clearest route to glory. Top coaches like Fissette and Joyce would not work with her if they were not convinced of her potential, and she clearly has the ability to win a Grand Slam one day.

However, the field will be extremely strong at Wimbledon this year. Previous winners Garbine Muguruza and Petra Kvitova will be dangerous, while Halep looks destined to claim a maiden Grand Slam soon. Angelique Kerber - now coached by Fissette - is in strong form, as is Karolina Pliskova, and Sharapova is always a formidable prospect. By then Serena Williams could well be back in business too, and if she can win a Slam while pregnant she can certainly win on her comeback.

It will take time for the partnership between Konta and Joyce to flourish, and Wimbledon 2018 might be too soon for her. This could be the year that Konta wins her first Grand Slam, but right now it is looking highly unlikely.

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