MELBOURNE—Australia was where it had all began for Johanna Konta—not just in tennis. She’d been born in Sydney, and lived there until she was 14 before relocating to Great Britain. Australia had also been where Konta had reached her first Grand Slam semifinal. That had only happened two years ago. Prior to that, she’d failed to make it out of the qualifying in Melbourne three straight times.
There are many layers to the way Konta carries herself. Since that run at the 2016 Australia Open, she’d blossomed into a bona fide contender, evidenced most last summer at Wimbledon, when she’d made it to the final four and, of course, set an entire nation on fire. Alas, no doubt worn out physically and mentally by all Wimbledon entailed, the rest of Konta’s 2017 had been desultory, her subsequent match record a mere 2-6.
Now, on a temperate Tuesday morning, she entered Hisense Arena to take on 90th-ranked Madison Brengle. Tennis years move so swiftly that it was hard to believe a player of Brengle’s caliber had once held a 3-0 head-to-head lead on Konta, beating her as recently as the fall of 2015.
But Konta knew.
“[Brengle] started doing really well a little before me,” she said, a reference to Brengle’s surprise run to the round of 16 here in ’15. The two had been friends for more than a decade, back to their days as juniors at the 2007 US Open.
Konta’s humble awareness of the journey she’s taken is one attribute that makes her eminently likable. Added to that is the intense, kindly, downright studious manner she brings to her press conferences, where she will lean forward and interact with her questioner as if she were a job applicant.
“I don’t quite understand. I mean, I actually don’t understand the question I’m sorry.” And later, after issuing a chuckle: “No, I’m laughing with you.”
In a sport laden with many who merely react and dispense in a rather perfunctory way, Konta is actively, overtly processing. You’d be hard-pressed to ever find a more sincere tennis player. Better yet, she is earnest. Konta’s recognition of Brengle’s skills also factored into this match.
“She brings different sorts of difficulties,” said Konta.
But for all of Konta’s graciousness, at heart this was the tale of two people who were once in the same classes—and then the other suddenly leaped ahead into the world of honors and AP classes. Konta possessed all the resources. Off both wings, she strikes with impressive pace and depth. Her serve is one of the best in the game. However awkward the start, with its hinge-like ball bounce, the motion is powerful and versatile. Twice in the first set, Konta closed out games with aces, snapping off seven to win that opening stanza, 6-3.
To steal a phrase from British icon Winston Churchill, all Brengle could offer in this match was blood, toil, tears and sweat. The backhand is by far Brengle’s best shot, even if it’s mostly reactive rather than commanding. The forehand is a mélange, an awkward technique that’s occasionally cracked, intermittently rolled, even sometimes carved. The serve; well, of the Brengle delivery, there are many club players with more emphatic motions.
Still, while there was scarcely any doubt that Konta would lose this match, there remain traces of fragility (humanity?) in her competitive demeanor that often leave Konta distant from the business as usual manner often shown by Top 10 players. Perhaps there is a part of her that remains uncertain that she truly belongs among the elite.
But vividly and unquestionably, without a doubt but also with a trace of humor, this woman is her own worst critic. A Konta tweet earlier this week cited how she’d purchased but forgotten to bring home two pints of blueberries.
“It’s five dollars I won’t get back,” she said following the Brengle match. “It’s actually more the betrayal in my own mind I feel so upset about.” Let it be noted: the betrayal in my mind, as if the inevitable slide towards dementia was suddenly upon her.
But give Konta credit. Another player might well blame someone else—coach, parent, agent, agent’s assistant, even the vendor—for the forgotten fruit. Instead, she pondered, smiled and profoundly pondered revelation: “You’d think I would learn from this, and now I will not forget blueberries again.”
“I like the way she goes about her work,” her new coach, Michael Joyce, told me after her 6-3, 6-1 win. “I’m not here to change her game. I’m here to see that she does it more consistently, that she believes she can do it day in and day out . . . . Her return is good, but it can be even more of a weapon.”
Konta navigated her way through the second set quite well, at 4-1 earning an insurance break with a laser-sharp crosscourt forehand winner and a similar backhand, each shot the kind that win major championships.
Invariably, Brengle played some of her best tennis when Konta served for the match at 5-1, 40-15. Brengle’s depth, sporadic for most of the match, suddenly picked up, as she fought off three match points and held an ad of her own. But at last, on match point number four, Konta had closed it out.
“It’s always a tricky situation to work with someone who’s been successful,” said Joyce. “It’s important for me to learn what makes her click.”
There would be a talk with Joyce, a practice session Wednesday, the next match on Thursday. By then, the temperature was expected to soar, likely over 100 degrees. None of that fazed Konta.
“It’s very similar to every other match we prepare for,” she said. If tennis’ precocious prodigies take their success for granted and act dismissive when adversity surfaces, Konta—the late-blooming tennis swan—has worked the hard way and therefore insists on being the consummate professional.
But first was the matter of obtaining the blueberries.