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Jo Konta and the second climb

Matt Zemek

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Dan Hamilton - USA TODAY Sports

Jo Konta rose to prominence in tennis at age 24, making the 2016 Australian Open semifinals. That was the best tournament and the biggest stage of her career, attained at the age of a veteran in relative tennis terms. Konta — as is the case for anyone who makes a major semifinal — became more of a target on the WTA Tour after her significant achievement in Melbourne.

Konta absorbed the lessons of a player who became a higher priority for her opponents on tour. She made the relevant adjustments. She processed the need to maintain consistency at a much higher level of competition. She translated those adjustments and internalizations into a 2017 Miami championship and a subsequent Wimbledon semifinal. She cracked the top five and had arrived as a tennis professional. Her run in Australia in 2016 was not a one-time-wonder aberration. It was the start of a building process which culminated with that Wimbledon semifinal at age 26.

Yet, we know what happened after that Wimbledon semifinal. Konta lost her footing. She couldn’t maintain her place in the larger workings of women’s tennis. A coaching change marked the latter portion of her 2017 season. Wim Fissette, who guided her to great heights in the spring and summer of 2017, split with Konta. Tennis might remain “tennis” wherever it is played, meaning that the game might seem simple from an outsider’s perspective: You have to hit the ball cleanly and respond well to pressure no matter who coaches you.

That might be true as far as it goes, but as we know, some athletes come to depend on a specific voice and a specific presence to unlock their talents. Look no further than Stan Wawrinka, who has excelled under Magnus Norman in ways which simply haven’t applied to other coaches. Look at how Conchita Martinez inspired Garbine Muguruza, whereas Sam Sumyk has failed to do the same. Sometimes, athletes need a specific voice — that reality is hardly confined to tennis.

Michael Jordan needed Phil Jackson. So did Kobe Bryant. Both men lost in the NBA Playoffs under other coaches. Though they obviously needed more help from teammates as well, Jackson was the coach who enabled them and their teammates to coexist more effectively, crossing the threshold from almost-champion to proven repeat champion.

Jo Konta had something great. Then she lost it. More precisely, Konta lost her winning ways not as a very young player, but in the middle period of her career. It’s not as though she rose to fame at age 20 and then went through the kinds of experiences a young player will ordinarily endure, and then regain mastery of tennis at age 22 with so much time ahead of her.

Konta just turned 28 — on Friday, to be specific. Time is a very precious thing for her and other tennis pros in their late 20s. Pablo Carreno Busta — who will turn 28 in July of this year — made his climb to a major semifinal two years ago at the U.S. Open. He has been harmed by injuries, but it remains that he made a mid-career climb, fell off the mountain, and is trying to climb back.

It is never simple to make “a second climb,” but what is more precise about the journey Konta is making is that she is pursuing this “second climb” at a latter stage in her career — not necessarily near the end, but not especially close to the beginning. It can be uniquely burdensome for an athlete to spend several years trying to become great, briefly attaining lofty status such as Konta’s top-five ranking in 2017, and then lose the winning edge. Falling from the top tier of a sport midway through a career can carry psychic baggage which is more oppressive than it is for younger players, who are still collecting information and can more easily realize that the bumps in the road are a natural part of the larger process.

For older veterans, bumps in the road at age 27 can be viewed as permanent indicators of their limitations. This doesn’t mean a struggle at age 27 IS a final verdict; the more exact point I am trying to make here is that significant adversity later in a career can feel like an indication that a ceiling of potential is low, or getting lower. Struggles in one’s late 20s can create the thought in one’s mind that a chance at supreme achievement — victory on the highest possible scale — is either permanently gone or fading out of the picture.

That can be acutely traumatic and stressful for an athlete in ways that young players don’t always have to bear.

Such is the difficulty not only of a “second climb,” but of a second climb made after logging many miles as a professional athlete.

Wawrinka — mentioned earlier in this piece — made a “first climb” when he was 28. He didn’t have a previous journey which was comparable to his ascent in late 2013 and then the 2014 season. He wasn’t trying to figure out tennis a second time after having mastered it once, then losing his footing, and then regrouping. No — that journey for Stan (and for Angelique Kerber, another player whose first climb also came in her late 20s) — was an original development. It was a “eureka!” moment filled with the excitement of a positive new set of discoveries. Stan has, by and large, sustained that eureka moment in subsequent seasons, as has Kerber.

Jo Konta didn’t really sustain what she did — and learned — in 2017… but now she is showing signs of getting her groove back.

If this second climb sticks — if Konta stays at or near the top of the mountain — her feat will deserve to be remembered as a profound achievement, because it is not terribly common in this sport.

Matt Zemek is the co-editor of Tennis With An Accent with Saqib Ali. Matt is the lead writer for the site and helps Saqib with the TWAA podcast, produced by Radio Influence at radioinfluence.com. Matt has written professionally about men's and women's tennis since 2014 for multiple outlets: Comeback Media, FanRagSports, and independently at Patreon, where he maintains a tennis site. You can reach Matt by e-mail: mzemek@hotmail.com. You can find him on Twitter at @mzemek.

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