Johnna Konta: Mind Games - By Dominic Bliss

British No.1 and ASICS ambassador Johanna Konta is as strong mentally as she is physically and technically. It's her brains, much more than her brawn, that have helped her become the greatest British female player of her generation.
 
Yes, she works constantly on her technique and tactics. Of course she does. Certainly she puts in countless hours in the gym, too. All professional tennis players do both of these. But where Johanna Konta differs from many of her peers is that, every single day, she also trains her mind. On court, this is perhaps her greatest weapon of all.
 
The man responsible for her mental strength, Juan Coto, unfortunately passed away last December but the positive influence he had on his charge during the years he worked with her should not be underestimated. He was the brains behind her brains, you might say. “When I go into the gym, I’m working on getting my muscles stronger and I try to treat my mind in the same manner,” Johanna explained recently to the Independent newspaper. "It's a habit you keep trying to reinforce every day, because the more you do that the more smooth it becomes. It’s like a muscle.”
 
Johanna first met Coto through her former coach Esteban Carril. It turns out the two men hailed from the same town in northern Spain and used to play tennis together on Spain's junior national circuit. Earlier in his career Coto had advised the likes of business people, entrepreneurs and actors, but switched to tennis, a sport where what's happening inside players' heads is just as crucial as what's happening with their arms and their legs.
 
Johanna said the areas they used to concentrate on included mental relaxation techniques, visualisation of positive outcomes, and the need to focus only on the things one can control. “It's about being adaptable and reaching a place in my head where it's quiet," she said in an interview with Hello Magazine.
 
All this head shrinking has paid off in spades. Since 2008 Johanna has shot up the WTA World Rankings from around 800 to inside the world top 10. She has won WTA World Tour events in Stanford last year and in Sydney as well as reaching the semi-finals of last year’s Australian Open. Her performances at this year's Australian Open, where she won through to the quarter-finals under the guidance of her new coach Wim Fissette were equally impressive. This 25-year-old may be well on her way to becoming a household name yet remains distinctly uncomfortable with all the attention. “I don't think of myself as a famous person,” she admits. “That's Sir Andy Murray.”
 
Johanna was born in the Australian city of Sydney, daughter of Hungarian immigrants Gabor (now a hotel manager) and Gabriella (a dentist). At the age of 14 she relocated to Spain and started training at the Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona, the same alma mater as Andy Murray.
 
"When I initially went there I didn’t see my mum for six months and my dad for four months,” she told The Guardian newspaper. “Australia is far from Spain but I don’t remember how long or how short the days felt. I think what was most difficult for my parents was that if anything went wrong they couldn’t say: ‘OK, we’ll be there in a couple of hours’. Flights costs thousands of dollars and even on a good connection you’re still 26 hours away.”
 
She recalls feeling more than a little homesick. “There was no Skype in those days. I remember this little payphone in the reception in the main clubhouse, and I would go there at a certain hour and they would call. I don’t remember much else, and that’s interesting. Is it because it was quite a traumatic period?”
 
Eventually Johanna's parents decided to leave Australia and join her in Europe. Initially the family lived in East London before settling in Eastbourne on the south coast where she became a British citizen and started competing under the British flag in May 2012.
 
She stills lives at her parents' Eastbourne home. “Coming home to have Mum cook for me is a joy," she said recently after doing a photo shoot in Hello magazine. There’s a boyfriend, Kether Clouder, who works as an analyst for the computerised line-judge technology company Hawk-Eye. (He's obviously not permitted to analyse matches when his girlfriend is one of the players.)
 
It's an upbringing that has forced her to become fiercely independent. Back in Sydney she had attended a Steiner school, part of an international group of alternative schools that advocate imaginative learning through intellectual, practical and artistic development. Then in the UK she was home-schooled, although she admits that often she was left to her own devices rather than guided by a trained tutor.
 
“A lot of that time I was on my own,” she told The Guardian. “I essentially taught myself for those years. But I did okay. I honestly think it was because I had a desire to learn. I loved maths. I loved history.”
 
Johanna may end up being an important part of sports history herself. By reaching the world’s top 10 she has joined a very small but very prestigious group of British players from the last 40 years. The others are Virginia Wade, Sue Barker and Jo Durie. Durie was the last of them, and that was back in 1984, proof of just how accomplished Konta already is.
 
Perhaps, dare we whisper it? this 26-year-old might even win a Grand Slam. The last British female to do that was Virginia Wade, at Wimbledon, a depressingly long 40 years ago.

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