We knew, with so many star attractions missing from this year’s Miami Open, that there would be a chance for a fresh face to take a rare turn in the spotlight. But did anyone think that the fresh face would also be such a welcome blast from the recent past?
With her wins over Madison Keys on Thursday, and Roland Garros champion Iga Swiatek on Saturday, Ana Konjuh has made herself the unlikely center of the tennis world’s attention. You remember her: Native of Dubrovnik, highly-touted teen, reached the quarterfinals of the US Open and lost an epic to Aga Radwanska at Wimbledon in 2016, seemed to be on the verge of making good on her potential when she cracked the Top 20 in 2017. And then, injuries. Specifically, a chronic elbow problem that had plagued her since she was 12, and that required four surgeries and kept her away from the game for three years.
Well, that Ana Konjuh is back, and it hasn’t taken her long to throw her racquet in the ring with the WTA’s new generation of champions, the ones who rose up in her absence to win Grand Slams titles. Konjuh is still just 23, and judging by the way she out-hit the youngest of those champions, Swiatek, she’s going to be a force to be reckoned with.
“That saying, ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger,’ it’s kinda true,” Konjuh said today.
Was she was quoting Nietszche, or Kelly Clarkson? Either way, Konjuh, not surprisingly, says she sees the game and her career much differently than she did when she was 17 or 18.
“I just appreciate things more right now,” she said. “When you’re just hitting the ball, and then there’s a possibility you might never play again…it kind of puts things in perspective.”
Konjuh says that she and her coach, Antonio Veic, are also trying to bring a new, more mature perspective to the way she approaches her own game. She’s always had the firepower; now she wants to deploy it more patiently and efficiently.
“Being smart about it,” she said, “not going for the killer shots at the moments they’re not there for.”
But Konjuh also knows that “smart” doesn’t have to mean safe or tentative, and she knew that against the equally aggressive Swiatek, she had to seize her opportunities.
“I have to stay offensive,” Konjuh told herself. “I can’t give her time to hit her forehand.”
Konjuh hit 40 winners against just 18 errors, and she didn’t let Swiatek uncork that forehand and take control of rallies with it. Iga, for one, thought it was the right strategy.
“I think Ana was playing really good,” Swiatek said. “As she said in her post-match interview, I read it on Twitter, she…didn’t want to give me time on my forehand. I think that was pretty good tactics. She was playing really aggressively and kind of risky but the balls went in, so I assume that she's in good shape right now.”
Most impressive may have been the way Konjuh, who is currently ranked No. 338, closed out her biggest win in years. Serving at 5-2 in the third set, she won the first point with a forcing backhand into the corner. She won another with her 10th ace. And she won the last two with full-swing, no-hesitation forehand winners to clinch a 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 victory.
“I just wanted to stay in it in those key moments,” Konjuh said, “and produce some great shots, and I did just that.”
When the last of those great shots clipped the baseline and skipped past Swiatek, Veic couldn’t help himself. He roared his approval for everyone in the stadium to hear. Konjuh shot him a smile, and then walked over to her chair and, for the third straight match, smiled a wide smile and buried her face in her towel.
Later, Konjuh reflected on her struggles, and what kept her going through them..
“Thankfully all of that is behind me right now,” she said, “but in those key moments where you’re sick of everything and you’re just questioning yourself like should I go back and is it worth it and whatnot, I just remembered, you know, why I started playing this sport and why I love it so much and just the feeling that I had when I was in the top and having these great results and what it meant to me.”
“So, you know, I decided I’m not going to stop until I do everything there is, every possibility to help me. Here we are.”
Here she is, in the fourth round in Miami, where she’ll play Anastasia Sevastova next. Sometimes the freshest faces are the ones we missed from the past, the ones we didn’t get to see often enough the first time around.
“To be playing at this level gives me confidence I still have work to do.”