Johanna Konta: How has Briton become a serious French Open title contender

Johanna Konta

Johanna Konta is bidding to reach her first Grand Slam final

Whether it is trusting her ability more on the clay court, or excitedly talking about her pet dog Bono in chats with journalists, Johanna Konta has cut a more content figure at the French Open this year.

It is perhaps obvious when she has become the first British woman since Jo Durie in 1983 to reach the semi-finals at Roland Garros.

Nevertheless it is a stark contrast to 12 months ago when she suffered her fourth straight first-round exit on the Paris clay.

Then, Konta was ponderous and erratic on the red dirt, going on to criticise the British media for “not making things easy” when journalists mentioned her poor record at Roland Garros.

After a remarkable run to this year’s last four – where she plays Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova at 10:00 BST on Friday – her previous troubles here have been consigned to history.

“She looks like a different sort of player – more rounded, physically and mentally,” Sue Barker, the last Briton to win Roland Garros in 1976, told BBC Sport.

So how exactly has Konta, the 26th seed, transformed herself into a contender for the title?

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‘She could always play on clay, but didn’t have belief’

Heading into the European clay-court swing Konta was ranked 45th in the world and had never won a main-draw match at Roland Garros.

But her newly-found confidence on the surface quickly became apparent as she reached WTA finals at the Morocco Open and Italian Open.

Despite both finals ending in defeats, Konta had proved she had the ability to cause problems for higher-ranked opponents on a previously tricky surface.

Konta insists she has always retained belief she could succeed on clay and says her work with coach Dimitri Zavialoff, who she linked up with last October, is not specific to the red dirt but aimed at “crossing over to all surfaces”.

“To have never won a match in the French Open and find yourself in the semi-final, it shows it is all in the mind,” Barker said.

“She could play on clay, she just never believed in herself. Now she does.”

Durie, a former world number five, added: “You have to come to terms mentally and emotionally with the surface before you tweak your game a little bit.

“For Jo in particular, she has an aggressive game, it was just a matter of being able to slide a little bit better and keep the balance.”

How Konta has worked out how to succeed on clay is starkly illustrated by the stats:

  • Nobody has won more tour-level matches than Konta on the surface this year
  • Konta’s record on the clay is 15 wins and three defeats in 2019
  • Only Croatian Petra Martic, who lost to Vondrousova in the quarter-finals, has matched her tally of victories
  • Konta had only earned seven tour-level victories on clay, losing 15 matches, in her whole career before this year

‘Tactically she is thinking very well – and not panicking’


Konta’s serve has been a potent weapon in Paris

Konta’s service game and hard hitting have always been her strengths, but in the aftermath of her 2017 Wimbledon success – where she reached the last four – those weapons went awry.

Now she has rediscovered her firepower to devastating effect:

  • Konta has won 75.8% of her service games in 2019, nobody outside the world’s top 10 – having played more than 11 matches – has won more
  • She has won 82% of her service games (40 from 49) at Roland Garros, with only two players having a higher percentage
  • The Briton has won 70% of her first serve points at Roland Garros (150 from 213), a tally only bettered by Ekaterina Alexandrova (74%), Serena Williams (74%), Ashleigh Barty (72%) and Madison Keys (71%) from those who have played more than two matches.

In her stunning quarter-final win over American seventh seed Sloane Stephens, Konta cantered towards victory by winning 18 straight service points at the start of the second set.

“I like the way she has tweaked her serve a bit so that she is hitting those higher bouncing serves,” Durie said.

“She has more cover on the ball on the forehand, she’s hitting some great cross-courts and she’s really brought in the drop-shot when she has her opponent behind the baseline.

“So, tactically she is thinking very well.”

Konta’s belief in her service game, and ability to remain calm, is also shown by the fact no player inside the top 100 has saved as many break points as the Briton this year.

That resilience proved key for Konta, who has saved 64.4% of break points, when she fought off a chance for Stephens in the first game of their quarter-final to hold.

“She is not panicking out there,” British Fed Cup captain Keothavong added.

Autonomy and trust instilled by new coach


Zavialoff has encouraged Konta to be more flexible in her tactics

Linking up with France-born coach Zavialoff, who enjoyed success with Swiss pair Stan Wawrinka and Timea Bacsinszky, has proved to be the spark in reigniting former world number four Konta’s career.

Zavialoff’s approach is giving more “autonomy” to the player, enabling Konta to trust herself to – in her words – “problem solve” better on court.

“He’s been great in just encouraging me and inviting me and giving me the space to play the way I want to play and not putting too many restraints or restrictions on myself,” Konta said.

“I’m enjoying that self-discovery process of being the player who I want to be and trusting the decisions I make out there.

“I feel a lot of ownership over it, which is a really nice place to be.”

Anne Keothavong, who guided Konta and her team-mates to promotion to the Fed Cup World Group II stage earlier this year, believes Konta is reaping the rewards of being settled in both her tennis and personal life.

“She is enjoying her tennis a lot more, she is happy off the court and that reflects in her tennis she is able to produce on a match day,” said Keothavong.

“There is better clarity when she walks on the court, what she wants to do, how she needs to win the match.

“She plays to her strengths. She has always been capable of doing different things but now does it with more confidence.”

‘Self-assured’ Konta always maintained belief

Konta, of course, has already proved she has the ability to mix it with the world’s best players.

Her breakthrough run came at the 2016 Australian Open where she lost to Germany’s Angelique Kerber in the semi-finals, before she became the first British woman to reach the Wimbledon last four since 1978 the following year.

That run at SW19 propelled her to fourth in the world rankings, yet the effects of increased scrutiny on a home player succeeding at Wimbledon appeared to hamper her as she won just two more matches in 2017.

“She said she felt like she came up against a brick wall, all those emotions, she just found it hard to get going,” Durie said.

“For a little while she was trying to cope with success, that can happen.”

Hiring American coach Michael Joyce for the 2018 season proved unsuccessful, winning only two Grand Slam matches and her ranking dropping from ninth in the world to the cusp of the top 50.

After ending that partnership, Konta hired Zavialoff after a trial run and the decision has proved inspired.


Unpredictable women’s tournament wide open

Konta’s path to the latter stages – and a potential chance to become the first Briton to win the Roland Garros title since Barker in 1976 – has opened up following an unpredictable women’s tournament.

World number one Naomi Osaka, second seed Karolina Pliskova and former champion Serena Williams all lost in the third round and only three top-10 seeded players reached the women’s quarter-finals.

Amanda Anisimova stunned 2018 champion Simona Halep in straight sets and Australian eighth seed Ashleigh Barty knocked out Madison Keys to set up an unfamiliar-looking last-four line-up.

Halep’s defeat means there is guaranteed to be a first-time Grand slam champion come Saturday, with Konta the only one of the remaining quartet who has ever reached a singles semi-final before.

Vondrousova’s furthest run before Roland Garros was losing in the fourth round at last year’s US Open.

Barty reached her maiden quarter-final on home turf at this year’s Australian Open, losing to eventual runner-up Petra Kvitova – who ended Anisimova’s previous best performance at a Slam in the fourth round.

That was only the American teenager’s third appearance in the main-draw of a Slam, having lost in the 2017 French Open and 2018 US Open first rounds.

“Jo has reached Grand Slam semi-finals before and not built on them,” Barker said.

“But maybe because she has been here before, had that dip after, it won’t be as difficult this time around because she knows what to expect and can deal with it better.”