Andy Murray believes Johanna Konta can join him as No1 in the world this summer – perhaps when he defends his Wimbledon title – while Serena Williams leaves the Tour to have her first child.
Murray said Konta, who is playing for Great Britain in the Fed Cup in Romania this weekend, is among a handful of contenders who can realistically wonder about replacing the American. Williams revealed on Wednesday she is 20 weeks into her pregnancy and due to give birth in August. Murray, whose own grip on the men’s crown was weakened in a surprise defeat here on Thursday but has just about a big enough lead to hold off the challenge of Novak Djokovic, believes Konta “has a good chance” in a fragmented field, having risen to No7 in the world when she beat Caroline Wozniacki in Miami this month.
Speaking after the Spaniard Albert Ramos-Viñolas had put him out of the Monte Carlo Masters in three sets, Murray said: “It’s been pretty much 18 months where she’s played at a level where she’s in the top seven or eight players in the world. She was close to getting to Singapore [for the WTA Tour Finals] last year and she’s in with a good shot of doing it this year. I’m sure for all of the women, with Serena out, it’s going to be tough to predict. If she steps up her game there’s no reason why she can’t get close to the top.”
Konta said: “There will be a lot of girls who will be competing very hard for those titles. I will try to be one of them. My dream has always been to be No1 and to win titles and really be at the top of the game.”
She is playing the best tennis of her career and may never have a better chance. Owing to the quirks of the women’s Tour and the inconsistency of the incumbent, Angelique Kerber, Williams will return to No1 on Monday without having struck a ball since winning her 23rd major in January at Melbourne and with little prospect of getting another until the next Australian Open.
Kerber has won two slams but the others in the chasing pack – Karolina Pliskova, Dominika Cibulkova, Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza – have not. And Konta has beaten all of them at least once.
There is another rival lurking for Williams’s crown: the game’s eternal princess, Maria Sharapova. Their shared animus is long-standing and beyond repair – and Sharapova will realise she has an outside chance of dethroning Williams if she can put together an unbeaten run all the way to Wimbledon, which would be an astonishing achievement.
If she were somehow to win in Stuttgart next week after serving a 15-month drug ban, her chances of a wildcard at Roland Garros would improve considerably, but the French Tennis president, Bernard Giudicelli, said: “Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are two unconnected cases. We’re staging a grand slam, not a casting.”
Victoria Azarenka, Williams’s more friendly rival and a former world No1 who became a mother for the first time in December, said: “I’m really happy for her. This is something that has nothing to do with us being competitors and I’m just so happy from one woman to another woman. Honestly it’s going to be the best thing that ever happened to her and I’m super happy that her personal life is so stable right now and I can’t wait. I hope she is going to come back and play again because I’ll miss her to death.”
Azarenka, whose absentee ranking stands at 317, will return to competition in July. Goodwill for Williams abounds but Margaret Court, who won three of her record of 24 majors in 1973, the year after she had her first son, Daniel, is unsure if the American can emulate her feat.
“Coming back after Daniel I had one of my best years,” she said, “but I was quite a few years younger . I think you’ve got to know physically what you can do and how you can do it. You put the baby first and that to me was everything at the time. But we’re all different.”
Court, who was in term when she lost to fellow-Australian Evonne Goolagong (later Cawley) in the 1971 Wimbledon final, added: “Our first child was with me on the Centre Court. My coordination, my timing, was all out and I thought: What’s wrong with me? Balls were dropping in and I was letting them go. Nobody knew. I went to the doctor and then I found out.”
Williams almost certainly was also pregnant when she won the Australian Open in January and Murray recognised she faces the significant challenge of re-igniting her ambition.
“It’s a difficult one that,” he said. “From my own experience, we’ve made it work. Serena doesn’t play a busy schedule anyway, playing maybe 10 tournaments a year. Like I say, it depends: if she wants to do it and she wants to come back and travel the world with her kid, then I’m sure she’ll be fine. But I see it more as a desire thing; if she wants to do it, I’m sure she’ll make it work.”