MELBOURNE, Australia - Johanna Konta will play the biggest match of her career on Wednesday when she faces six-time champion Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open. By all accounts, the 25-year-old doesn't even see it that way.
Konta, who is riding an eight-match winning streak after taking the Apia International Sydney title, has won her last 18 sets of tennis. Her serve, a weapon that has emerged as the cornerstone of her game, has been broken just twice in Melbourne. There's no reason for Konta to be short of confidence going into her first career meeting against Serena, but the humble Brit's approach to her tennis these days is what sets her apart from the pack.
Look no further than the final game she played to beat Ekaterina Makarova, 6-1, 6-4 in the Round of 16 on Monday. Serving to close out the match, Konta found herself down 0-40, a point away from finding herself back on serve against the talented Russian. She saved the first break point with an unreturnable first serve, the second with a forehand winner, and the third with an ace, cool as you like. Four points later, the match was over.
Closing out matches, handling one's nerves with so much on the line, these are the marks of a resilient competitor. Just 48 hours earlier, 19-year-old Jelena Ostapenko had No.5 seed Karolina Pliskova on the ropes and twice failed to serve out the match, blowing a 5-2 lead and losing. The young Latvian immediately copped to her nerves, saying she was impossibly tight as she stared down the biggest win of her career. Konta, serving for a spot in her second career quarterfinal, didn't even flinch.
So how did Konta do it? Here's her eloquent response from the interview room after the match:
Q. You said the other day that you were surprised how you close out sets and matches as if it was any routine service game. Where do you draw that confidence in those big moments?
JOHANNA KONTA: I think more than anything it's more trying to disassociate myself from the importance of the moment. I think it's more keeping things in perspective and not panicking if I were to lose that service game or that point.
I think just keeping things in good perspective and just having trust in myself that however the match will swing, I will always be there to give my best and to always try to leave it all out on court and fight till the very end.
? Jo Durie (@Jodurie) January 23, 2017
Q. When you talk about disassociating yourself from the big moments, obviously a lot of players struggle to do it, and I'm sure you struggled to do it five years ago. Why is that so difficult for most players? Why was it difficult early on to kind of be able to not be overwhelmed by the importance of moments in a match?
JOHANNA KONTA: I think it's difficult, because you have also got to put things in perspective. Everyone you see playing has been playing since they were a little girl. And it's no secret that to get to whatever sport or even whatever area of life, if you want to be part of the elite and if you want to get to the top of your field, there will be numerous sacrifices you'll need to make.
And I think when you get to a position where you might see a glimmer of what you have dreamed of as a little girl or what you hoped for, what you've worked so hard for, it can feel kind of an all-or-nothing moment or what if I never get this chance again?
I think it's more a bit of possibly fear of being able to replicate the position you're in more than anything, but then I think that's where you have also got to have a good perspective on things, and you've got to keep, I guess, the simple things in mind of what's important to you.
Are you healthy? Is your family healthy? Do you have people around you that you love? Do you have people around you that love you?
I know it might sound really mundane and simple, but I guess you've got to go back to things that have got substance, and then in the end just trust in the work that you do, if it's in the cards for you that you will get another opportunity or you won't. I think [you have to] really love the sport for what it is and be grateful for the opportunities that it brings you, not necessarily what you wish it would.
Q. Going back to the separating yourself from the importance of the moment, in that nanosecond where the little voice in your ear goes, Psst, it's match point, what is the trigger that you can shut that voice out, and how long does that take for it to become automatic?
JOHANNA KONTA: I don't think it's about necessarily, for me personally, anyway, about shutting it out. It's more accepting that, Oh, I have got a little bit of tension. Or accepting that my mind might be yapping away, not necessarily fighting against it, but relaxing into it and saying, It's absolutely normal to think like this.
I think it's then easier for your motions to take over more than anything because you've got to trust the tennis in you, the motions in you, years and years of playing that I'm all of a sudden not going to forget how to serve. I have been doing it, I don't even know how long, so I think it's more just having that trust in the repetitions that you've had over the years.
Konta's transformation over the last 18 months has been one of the most confounding stories in the women's game. How does a player, one who was once a terrible closer who would let her emotions impede her game, suddenly learn to set it all aside and trust the tennis within her? Experience and maturity certainly play a role, as does Konta's work with a sports psychologist.
But the rapidity of the change and her unwavering commitment and belief in herself is remarkable and a fantastic example to players up and down the rankings. Asked whether she believed she could beat Serena, Konta dismissed the premise of the question.
"I believe in my own ability," she said. "I believe in the good things that I bring to the court, and I believe in my ability to fight till the very end.
"Now, there's that and then there's also an opponent out there, and this one's going to be Serena Williams. I think it's about playing, me going out there and doing what I want to do against her, and it will be about just staying focused on that. And if that brings me good things on that day, and if that puts me in a position to come through, then that's great.
"But I've got to focus on the work and not think of whether I can or cannot beat her. I just need to stay on the work."
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.