“Perspective from the Outside”: Johanna Konta, Wimbledon Chances and On-Court Coaching

 

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Johanna Konta.

Johanna Konta is far better to watch in the flesh.

The Aussie-turned-Brit was one of the breakout stars of the WTA tour in 2015. This time of year was the turning point, as big wins compiled on the lawns turned into strong Summer showings that featured a run to the US Open fourth round. Now ranked world no. 8, the 26-year-old has hardly looked back since then, reaching a maiden Grand Slam semi-final at the 2016 Australian Open and a Premier Mandatory crown at the Miami Open only recently – defeating Simona Halep, Caroline Wozniacki and Venus Williams en route.

The top ten player is far from the WTA’s most popular outside the realms of the UK. Her game is incredibly simplistic, and her on court persona hardly distinguishable. Some might even wonder how Konta made the sudden rise from outside the world’s top 200 and into the top 30.

A courtside seat can help one to see why. On Friday at the Aegon Open Nottingham, Konta – who has never progressed beyond the quarter-finals at the event – was up against Ashleigh Barty in the last eight. Her Aussie opponent – a former prodigy, and a comeback queen at last season’s event – had all the tools to win this grass-court title. A big serve, a lethal backhand slice, good movement and fine ability at the net made her formidable.

Unfortunately for the recent Roland Garros doubles finalist, the unforced errors piled up on Centre Court – ending with a final double fault that sealed her 6-3 7-5 fate.

Nevertheless, Konta applied the pressure during their straight sets encounter. She rarely strayed from the back of the court, but when she came to the net it was on the heels of manufacturing the opportunity by dragging Barty side to side across the court. The Brit attacks a neutral ball. She has little interest in rallying straight up the court, daring herself to get as close to the sidelines as possible. When Barty made moves to the net on Friday – a little slower and a little less confident than usual – Konta’s brilliant balance allowed her to crack down on passes that flew past the Aussie’s face, or produce a loopier winner cross court. One or two exquisite lobs paid tribute to her ability on the back foot, and her sheer consistency in long rallies – whether Barty was slicing or striking – made it easy for her 21-year-old opponent to tighten up.

Much of this was made possible by Konta’s greater mental security and focus on the match. It is this to which she largely credits her career rise, after spending time with a psychologist and learning to take control of her mentality during all kinds of matches.
It is therefore surprising that the 26-year-old saw the need to call her coach onto court during the encounter – after a hold to 30 that set her 6-3 2-1 ahead on the scoreboard.

‘Baffling’ is the word.

When asked about her move after the match, Konta was willing to respond.

“I don’t use coaching timeouts just for when I’m losing or when I’m down in the scoreline,” the top seed revealed.

“I use it where I want some perspective from the outside. I think it’s always a great opportunity for me to learn about myself and grow as well as a player, because obviously my team can see me from the outside, they can see situations from the outside. It’s not as easy when you’re in the match.”

Helpful it may have been. After all, Konta tightened some loosening screws to seal the win in two sets.

But seemingly in control, the home player gave her opponent the notion that she was beginning to feel insecure. And she almost fell victim to the consequences – as Barty held, broke and held in the next three games to edge ahead in the set.
The mental wobble from Konta was evident as she allowed Barty a swift hold to love upon resumption after the timeout. It was here that the necessity of a strong head game became evident on the other side of the net, as Barty seized the opportunity and channeled her shots to rack up a break. But the errors kept coming at the worst of times, and it was her opponent who raised her level to impressive heights for the victory.

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Johanna Konta on grass-courts.

As she nears the Aegon Open final, people have begun to pinpoint Konta as a potential Wimbledon victor. And her consistency in relation to the rest of the tour earns her this title. She may have fallen in the French Open first round, but grass-courts are a whole new ball game. The Brit has proven her ability to play dominant tennis on the quicker lawns, and has plenty of experience in big matches on the biggest stages. While her rise has been swift, it has taken a step-by-step climb that now places a firm foundation underneath her.

Her status as a player with a tough mentality means that she should soon be able to handle the home pressure that comes with a tournament like Wimbledon.

Nevertheless, we return to on-court coaching – the central component of an age-old argument that will forever resurface until it is either abolished, or used on both the ATP and WTA tours. Currently, the women alone allow this rule.

There was nothing fundamentally wrong with what Konta did on Friday. She felt like talking to her coach, the rules allowed her to do so, and therefore she did.

But it again raises the question as to whether this should be allowed to happen – and also whether it is helpful in the long run.

It goes beyond whether or not the coaching timeout makes the WTA players look weak – as many believe it does. Football and rugby have half time, after all, which typically consists of either an in-depth tactic talk or a full-on berating of a team’s collective errors. Still, there is the argument that a teacher lectures a student before the exam – and once the time for the test arrives, the student must take it alone, calling upon their hours of preparation beforehand in order to succeed.

What is of more concern is how this particular use of the rule could affect Konta and many other players at Grand Slams. Calling upon a coach when losing and frustrated alone can make a player dependent upon them. But summoning a member of one’s team just because they can could deaden the player’s ability to think for themselves – and to maintain focus and belief throughout an entire major tournament. It is notable that Serena and Venus Williams – who hold the most Slam singles titles among active players – refuse to call their coach to court in any situation.

“I’m problem solving better and better,” Konta enthused after her solid quarter-final triumph.

But her desire to hear the thoughts of her coach could have almost undone the top seed against Ashleigh Barty. And the inability for that desire to be satisfied at major events could cost Konta a Grand Slam title in the near future.

It is all about just how reliant a player is upon a certain method. And the more one uses something, the more they notice its absence when it is taken away.

 

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Thanks for reading! Got any on-court coaching thoughts? Let me know in the comments section!

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