Intersectionality is a hot term in American politics these days. It refers to the linkage of class and race in setting political goals and priorities. The battle over intersectionality — how to achieve it, and what is or isn’t acceptable in pursuit of it — is dominating Democratic Party politics at the moment. Friction between factions, chiefly the establishment center-left and the Democratic Socialist hard left, is occupying the Democratic Party’s intellectual energy before the 2018 midterm elections for Congress and the run-up to the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.
In women’s tennis, I wish to focus on a different kind of “intersectionality,” with a pinch of literary license. I am referring to the intersections between players at certain points in time. These intersections can mean a lot, but they can also mean very little.
The latter reality, not the former one, applies to a player who got drummed out of the U.S. Open on Tuesday in New York, Jo Konta.
The 2017 Miami champion and Wimbledon semifinalist — who has never been the same since splitting with former coach Wim Fissette (perhaps the most underrated great coach in the sport right now) — lost 6-2, 6-2 to Caroline Garcia in round one of the U.S. Open, a disappointing result not for the fact that she lost, but that she couldn’t make the match more competitive. Konta was far removed from Garcia, which amplifies how much the Brit has regressed more than how much her French opponent has improved.
To be more precise, Garcia hasn’t improved in 2018 — certainly not in relationship to her late-2017 surge in which she won in Wuhan and Beijing and then reached the semifinal round of the WTA Finals. Garcia hasn’t gained a firmer foothold on tour this year. She hasn’t taken the next step in her evolution — there has been no evolution. Konta losing 12 of 16 games to Garcia on Tuesday shows how much Jo has regressed.
Recall that in her resplendent 2017 season, Konta defeated Garcia at Wimbledon in the fourth round, in what was reasonably seen at the time as a pivot-point match for both players. Konta has never done well on clay, so her lack of success at Roland Garros should never be viewed as an indicator of where her tennis stands. As long as she does well on grass and hardcourts, her game is in order. Garcia, though, CAN play some ball on clay, so when she reached the quarterfinals at Roland Garros last year, Wimbledon marked a chance to build on that showing and become a top-tier force in the sport. That R-16 clash with Konta on Manic Monday was freighted with considerable importance.
Garcia put up a good fight, but Konta was there to close the door in tense scoreboard moments, earning a 7-6, 4-6, 6-4 triumph which propelled her to the Wimbledon semifinals for the first time.
That version of Konta hasn’t reappeared since. A central point to emphasize: Crushing Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka this summer did not meaningfully change that calculus.
Intersections tell the tale.
In San Jose, Serena was reeling from the news that the man who killed her sister was released. That revelation coexisted with the fact that Serena was coming back to the tour just two weeks after her long and taxing Wimbledon run. As much of a mental giant — a tower of strength and a profound inspiration — Serena Williams in fact is, it was still asking a lot of her to play any kind of tennis that Monday night in California, let alone high-quality tennis. There was simply nothing to gain from Konta’s win in terms of evaluating the state of her game. She gained a win, she gained advancement in the tournament, and she gained prize money, but she did not gain transformation as a player who was about to turn the corner.
It is similarly the case that Konta’s win over Azarenka in Montreal did not offer indications of a revival. In past years, it might have, but this year — with Azarenka going through all sorts of challenges which have nothing to do with tennis, chiefly her new life as a mother and her constant battles for custody of her child — a win over Azarenka simply doesn’t hold the value it once owned. That’s not a criticism of Konta or of any other player who beats Vika in 2018. It is merely a reflection of the adjusted reality of Azarenka’s career.
If Konta had defeated Serena or Vika when those two champions were in position to play their very best, we would be having a different conversation, but the intersections of these players over the past month did not allow for such a discussion to take place.
Konta met Serena and Vika at the right times to gain wins, but not at the right times to transform her own career. That search is still in progress.
We will let you know when the outlook brightens for Konta. Right now, there is no light at the end of the tunnel, at least not in 2018.