It takes a lot to impress Martina Navratilova but her considered judgment that Johanna Konta can take her tennis to higher places after her breakthrough win in Miami will be worth much more than any hype generated in the heat of celebration.
Konta ended the winning streak of Caroline Wozniacki, 6-4, 6-3 in an hour and 35 minutes of a final that hit several high spots and a few low ones but it was her rise to No7 in the WTA rankings that was the more significant achievement. She is now moving in exalted company – and believes she is worth it.
What Konta has done over the past two years is not only dramatically improve her winning percentage but bring calm to her game, which ensures she is able to ride out most crises. All players suffer from lapses in concentration, especially under pressure, but Konta has factored that into her game and it was this methodical approach that impressed Navratilova, whose own tennis existed in an entirely different strata.
She was the dominant force of her era, No1 in the world for 332 weeks, including a spell of five years in a row, and won 18 majors. So, when she says of a 25-year-old contender such as Konta, who has yet to get past the semi-finals of a slam and has just won her first big title to go with a couple of minor ones, that there is work yet to do, it is advice worth listening to.
In Melbourne in January, Konta beat Wozniacki out of sight to earn a place in the Australian Open quarter-finals against Serena Williams – and, pointedly, Navratilova backed her to win that match. Konta did not manage it but she had earned the belief and support of one of the game’s most knowledgable and respected legends.
Before the Miami final, Navratilova pointed out a key technical oddity in Konta’s grip that stifles her ability to hit flat and hard down the line, forehand and backhand, a strongly cocked wrist leading her into playing drop shots that do not always suit the moment. She got away with these a couple of times against Wozniacki, one of the most athletic chasers in the game, but was punished as well – and then, when it counted most, finished the match with one of her better drop shots, followed by a sublime lob to outsmart her more decorated opponent. She turned a weakness into a strength.
It was a wonderful way to win a final and it showed another side to Konta’s development: confidence. There are plenty of players who might not have risked that move on match point, preferring to grind it out and wait for the other player to succumb to the nerves that cramp any winning ambition, or even just a hold on survival.
Wozniacki was, in fact, the perfect opponent for Konta in such a big match. She has won 25 Tour titles and, even though only a year older, has buzzed around the higher clouds of the game for a lot longer, holding down the No1 ranking for more than a year. Yet Konta was clearly the better player in this match as well as the one in Melbourne.
That was such a clear indicator of how far the British No1 has come in a relatively short time. There would not have been many takers backing Konta to beat Wozniacki even a couple of years ago. Now she has to set her sights higher. In front of her in the rankings are players she has competed with on close to level terms but whom she will regard as eminently beatable.
Angelique Kerber is officially on top of the mountain, even though it is Serena Williams who is the acknowledged big scalp still. The German has earned her crown the hard way and, when she is playing with full focus, is incredibly hard to beat. However, Venus Williams knocked her out to reach the semi-finals in Miami and Konta beat Williams to reach the final. Triangulation is an inexact science in sport but it is at least a good guide in comparing levels – and Konta is definitely in the mix alongside these excellent rivals.
Standing back from the numbers and statistics, Karolina Pliskova is probably the most dangerous active player in this elite group – if we consider Serena Williams as idling outside the week-to-week grind of the Tour, preparing for her return when the prizes mean more.
Konta lost to Serena in their only match and has taken only one win off Pliskova in six attempts but she is 1-1 with Dominika Cibulkova, and has twice beaten Simona Halep. Elsewhere in this exalted company, Konta is 1-0 against Svetlana Kuznetsova, 1-2 with Agnieszka Radwanska, has a win apiece with Madison Keys and has yet to beat Elina Svitolina in two attempts.
The groundwork has been laid, however. These players do not intimidate Konta, whose early development was so plagued by self-doubt and nerves it seemed she might fall by the wayside. That fear would seem to have been crushed for good.