Johanna Konta is in a positive frame of mind as she prepares for the start of the tennis season next week, but the 27-year-old Briton is too experienced a competitor to get over-excited about her prospects of success. For the third year in a row Konta will be entering a new campaign with a different coach in her corner – and knows that nothing can be taken for granted.
Having recruited Wim Fissette as her coach at the end of 2016, Konta enjoyed the best run of her life in the first seven months of the following year as she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, won the Miami Open and went to No 4 in the world rankings.
This year, however, Konta rarely looked capable of matching those achievements after Michael Joyce replaced Fissette. Now she has put her tennis in the hands of Dimitri Zavialoff, who previously coached Stan Wawrinka and Timea Bacsinszky. The 40-year-old Swiss had a trial week with Konta in October at the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, where she reached the semi-finals, and they have since had a full pre-season working together.
Konta admits she has “been in this place many times” and concedes that “it doesn’t always guarantee that it kicks off well”, but the world No 37 is feeling upbeat about the new season. She will open her campaign at next week’s Brisbane International before heading to Sydney and then to Melbourne for the Australian Open, which starts on 14 January.
“I definitely feel I’ve had a very strong pre-season, so that has given me a good chance to have a good overall 2019,” she said.
If that sounds like a cautious assessment of her prospects it is probably the result of her experiences over the last year and a half. With her performances in the first half of 2017, culminating in her run to the semi-finals at the All England Club, Konta had emerged as one of the game’s most exciting prospects, but she admitted to suffering “burn-out” in the latter stages of that season and has since struggled to rescale such heights.
In the last 18 months Konta has reached only one final, when she lost to Ashleigh Barty on grass at Nottingham this summer, and in Grand Slam competition she won only two matches in 2018.
While she has one of the best serves in the women’s game and is a formidable ball-striker, one of the most frequent criticisms of the British No 1 has been that she lacks variety and does not have a “Plan B” when things are working against her. In Zavialoff she has a coach who is encouraging her to think more about her game.
“He is someone who is basically teaching me to be quite self-sufficient on court,” Konta said in a break from pre-season training at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. “It’s much more of a partnership than I have had in previous coaching relationships. He encourages me to have a lot more input and encourages me to have that kind of understanding of my own game and what I do on court. That hopefully makes me better equipped to deal with challenges on court during matches.
“He’s basically working a lot on me being more independent and self-sufficient on court when I come into difficulties in matches. He’s a big advocate of that kind of collaboration, that kind of training.”
On the women’s tour players can call their coaches on to the court to give advice, but Konta does not expect to be inviting Zavialoff to leave his seat too often.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of that because it goes [against] the philosophy that we are working on,” she said. “I’m not ruling it out because there might still be a time and a place for it, also the manner in which it is done. But I wouldn’t say it will be a staple.”
Konta insisted that she would have preferred to make fewer coaching changes in her career, but thinks it is important to take action when things are not working out. “For a partnership to continue to work we have to both evolve,” she said. “If it starts stagnating, I think that’s where it’s not productive for either me or the coach.”
Away from tournaments, Konta expects to do some of her training blocks in Switzerland. “With Dimitri I will try and spend some time at his home as well because I know that’s important to him,” she said. “I know we will find the right periods when it makes more sense to train here and when we train there. I guess it makes more sense in the clay season to go to Switzerland. Weather-wise and courts-wise they are pretty good there. But I think it will be flexible.”
In terms of avoiding burn-out, Konta hopes she has learned from past experiences. “The way I’m going to be scheduling this year is to precisely have cycles of tournaments, rest, train, tournaments, rest, train,” she said. “I am going to try and specifically [work out a] cycle that enables me to perform well, play the amount of matches I want to play, do as well as I want to do and then be able to maintain and aid that to have longevity.”
Given her past success, does she feel like the world No 37 (her current ranking) or does she feel like a legitimate contender for every tournament she plays? “I feel confident that no player can step on court against me and feel confident that they will come out the winner,” she said. “Every match I take part in, I have an equal shot of coming through as the winner in that match.”
She added: “I want to be at the end stages of every tournament that I play. I consider myself in the mix every time.”
Konta admits that she needs to “get better at chilling out” when away from tennis. In recent weeks a new addition to the Konta household – a four-month-old miniature dachshund called Bono – has been helping to keep her mind off the day job. “Honestly I am in love with my dog,” she said. “He is the cutest thing. I get really excited to get home to see him.”
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