“I couldn’t believe it was over,” Johanna Konta said when she was asked how she felt at the end of her 6-4, 6-3 win over Caroline Wozniacki in the Miami Open final on Saturday. “I was convinced there were more points coming up.”
Konta, it seems, was in her own world by the end of this tournament. It was, by any measure, the biggest win of the 25-year-old’s career. Her first title at a Premier Mandatory event will leave her at No. 7 in the rankings on Monday, and make Konta someone to watch closely at the Grand Slams this summer. This is pretty heady stuff for a woman who couldn’t even qualify for the main draw in Miami as recently as 2015. Instead, she played an event in Jackson, Miss., where the prize money for the entire field was $25,000. Today Konta walked away with $950,000, all for herself.
But the Brit balked when it was suggested that her rise over the last two years had been meteoric. The evolution, she claimed, began much earlier.
“I’ve learned to play smarter tennis and calmer tennis,” she said, “and that takes time.”
Stay in the moment. Stay present. Focus on the process. Konta has made these her mantras over the last two years. She has described herself as Type A and tightly wound, and she hasn’t always succeeded in fending off her nerves in the past. But watching her over the last 10 days in Miami, you would hardly suspect any of that. In match after match, Konta did exactly what she has been telling herself to do: She moved quickly and purposefully to the next point, without dwelling on what had happened in the last one.
Konta, it seems, has discovered a fundamental fact of tennis, and one that John McEnroe has said was central to his success: Namely, that choking and winning are not mutually exclusive propositions. Everyone chokes at some point, in virtually every match. The key is to recognize it, accept it, and manage it.
Konta managed it in the quarterfinals against Simona Halep, when she let a 4-1 lead in the second set slip before bouncing back to win it in a tiebreaker. She managed it in the semifinals against Venus Williams, when she served for the match at 5-4 in the second set and was broken, but came back to win the next two games to close it out. And she managed her nerves again in the final against Wozniacki. Twice in the first set Konta went up a break, only to give it back. In the second set, she tightened up when she had a break point at 2-2 and lost the game. And she did the same thing when she had two more break points at 3-3.
Finally, on her fifth break point, Konta got lucky. Wozniacki, for no apparent reason, sliced a short backhand into the net. Confidence latches on to whatever it can find, including good fortune. At 4-3, 30-30, Konta hit a strong slice serve into the deuce court, and showed no sign of hesitation when she sent her next backhand into the open court for a winner. From there she was home free.
Konta can credit some of her boldness down the stretch to her coach, Wim Fissette. After the first set, Fissette came out and told Konta that when she got a short ball, she shouldn’t worry where she aimed her next shot. Just hit it, he said. That might sound rudimentary, but it can keep a player from thinking too much and possibly hesitating when he or she gets a short ball.
Overall, I liked Fissette’s coaching visits in Miami. He didn’t overload Konta with information, or try too hard to fire her up. His demeanor was calm and his advice simple, to the point, and easily remembered. In the quarterfinal with Halep, Darren Cahill’s tough-love visit at the start of the third set deservedly got a lot of attention. But I thought Fissette’s more practical advice was just as effective. He told Konta that she makes more of her shots when her feet are in set and in position before she swings. Whether those words mattered or not, Konta won the third set.
“The most clear-headed and just very work-focused that I come into a match, the better for me,” Konta said this week. “If I focus on the game plan that I want to execute out there and just basically how I want to behave and what I want to bring to the court, then that’s always in my best interest.”
Konta’s game may not be elegant, and she may not be jaw-droppingly powerful, but her style is appealingly straightforward and proactive—it is, as she says, very work-focused. She’s not satisfied just to rally, and she wastes no time hammering one of her ground strokes and trying to move forward. It has been good enough to leave her 19-3 on the season, with two titles and wins over Wozniacki, Halep, Venus Williams, and Agnieszka Radwanska. Within seconds of her victory on Saturday, talk of her contending for major titles this season had begun. There’s no reason it shouldn’t.
When Konta was asked about the future, she said she would focus on it when she returned to Europe. Staying in the moment is how she got here, and she was going to stay in this one for as long as she could.