It’s often said that the time to judge a player’s career is when they have retired. When there won’t be any more victories, or trophies, and their achievements can be properly assessed alongside factors such as the strength of the era they played in, the quality of players they beat, and the number of titles they won.
So how to assess Johanna Konta’s career after she announced her retirement at the age of 30?
During her 10 years on the WTA Tour she won four titles, made three Grand Slam semi-finals (Australian Open 2016, Wimbledon 2017, French Open 2019), reached No 4 in the world and had a strong record for Great Britain in the Fed Cup/Billie Jean King Cup, finishing with 12 singles wins in a row. She ends her career with a 50 per cent win record against Serena (1-1) and Venus Williams (4-4), a 4-0 record against four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka, and 22 top-10 wins. Konta also holds the record for inflicting the most one-sided defeat of Serena Williams’ career after thrashing her 6-1 6-0 in San Jose in 2018.
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Konta at her best was a fierce hitter with flat groundstrokes and a serve that could trouble any opponent. Even on clay Konta’s power was a weapon as she demonstrated when she crushed Sloane Stephens in the French Open quarter-finals in 2019, hitting 25 winners and only dropping one point on serve in the second set. Her aggressive approach also paid dividends when she out-hit world No 2 Simona Halep to reach the Wimbledon semi-finals, becoming the first British woman since Virginia Wade in 1977 to make the last four.
Konta’s confidence in her game grew as her career progressed.
She was a late bloomer, winning her first WTA Tour main-draw match in 2012 and only breaking into the top 100 two years later. She always seemed to have the quality to go higher but at times struggled to close out matches and seemingly let nerves derail her chances of winning. The hiring of coach Esteban Carril and mental coach Juan Coto proved a turning point in 2015 as Konta’s results started to improve significantly. Former Fed Cup captain Judy Murray said at the time that a heavy defeat in a match against Belarus was the catalyst for change.
She had a bit of a horror. She suffered from really bad performance anxiety and she lost that match very, very quickly and was distraught afterwards. But it really was a question of her recognising that she needed to do something to help her to control her emotions and her mind.
Konta went on a 16-match unbeaten run in 2015 and made the fourth round of the US Open as a qualifier. Further success followed, with titles won in Stanford, Sydney and Miami, and career-high No 4 in the world achieved in the summer of 2017.
In her peak years there is little doubt that Konta maximised her talent. She was arguably at her very best in 2017 when she won the biggest title of her career at the Miami Open, beating Halep, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki on the way to lifting the trophy.
If there are any regrets for Konta as she retires it must be over her two biggest missed opportunities at Grand Slams: losing to Marketa Vondrousova in the semi-finals of the French Open in 2019 and losing to Barbora Strycova in the quarter-finals of Wimbledon that summer.
Konta was far more experienced than both her opponents at that level but let a 5-3 lead slip in both sets against Vondrousova and then saw her serve crumble against Strycova, having lost just three of her previous 47 service games at the tournament. The defeat to Strycova was followed by a prickly press conference when Konta said she felt “picked upon in a harsh way” and was “being patronised” by questions about her approach.
If the questions were patronising it was the line about ‘wanting to win a Grand Slam one day’ that stood out. Konta was clearly doing all she could to win a Grand Slam and was making the most of her talents, but perhaps one of the difficulties she faced at the time was that British expectations had been raised by Andy Murray. Was Konta good enough to win a Grand Slam? Probably on her day. But making three major semi-finals, after such a long drought in British women’s tennis, was not an achievement to be dismissed.
Even though she spoke eloquently, Konta never seemed totally keen on facing the media, and she didn’t capture British interest early in her career as Heather Watson and Laura Robson stole the spotlight. But support for her grew at Wimbledon over the years and it was unfortunate that a brush with Covid-19 meant she did not get the chance to play at the All England Club for a final time this summer, especially after winning her first grass title at Nottingham beforehand.
Konta was also left frustrated after a positive Covid-19 test forced her to miss the Olympics, but the knee injury that has bothered her for the last couple of years and pushed her out of the top 100 is more of a factor behind her retirement.
Now Konta is turning her attention to life without tennis – “I am literally in a situation where I have to reinvent myself or re-find myself in the world, in life” – and when she looks back on her career she should do so proudly.
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