This article, written by Annabel Croft, first appeared in the Times Newspaper on 1st July 2019
It is inevitable that Johanna Konta will feel enormous pressure as she returns to Wimbledon. Even Roger Federer, who has won the tournament eight times, says that he just wants to get through the first round to overcome his early nerves. Andy Murray also used to admit to nerves like no other at the beginning of the tournament. There is no question that Konta, then, is going to feel more weight on her shoulders.
When I played in the 1980s, I shook more, panicked more and had so much nerves and adrenaline going through me. I felt sick before every match. The whole intensity of the event was quite overwhelming. Rather than practising on site at Aorangi, I would have preferred to hit quietly somewhere else away from everything. That is why I found it interesting that Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, said last week that the longer she stayed in Eastbourne - she eventually finished runner-up - the better, as it gets her away from the madness in SW19, where it is like a rat race with media scrums and a fight for practice courts.
The build-up to Wimbledon is heightened because the tournament means everything to a tennis player, even to those from overseas. It has a special feel, with so much history and tradition. Kerber said that despite her Australian Open and US Open triumphs, people only ever talk to her about Wimbledon. Imagine what it feels like then for a British player, with memories of watching the wall-to-wall coverage here.
Konta has publicly played down the impact of this unique home pressure, but I think that is her only way to deal with it, shutting out everything else and forcing herself to think that it is not going to affect her. She has to be positive and not allow any negative thoughts to enter her head. From what I understand, the coaches around her are now allowed to use certain words that will affect her mental outlook. Players, of course, all have their routines, but Konta is particularly formulaic.
Konta's run to the semi-finals of the French Open was massive for her ahead of the grass season. She struggled for consistency since reaching the same stage at Wimbledon in 2017, and no one could have thought that she would find her form again on the clay after failing to ever win a first-round match at Roland Garros. She played so well, though, transferring her aggressive game from hard courts to clay.
I do wonder how many times she has replayed in her mind the dreadful miss in the semi-final, when she hit a wild drive volley long. She probably tries to block it out and not give it any thought at all, but it would take a lot of mental training to do that. While she is still playing, she will not want to dwell on it. But when she hangs up her racket, the howler that could have taken her to the French Open final may haunt her.
It is hard to predict how Konta will perform at Wimbledon this year. She has only played five matches on grass this year, losing in the third round in Eastbourne and the second round in Birmingham. Two years ago, when she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals, her build-up consisted of 10 matches.
If Konta can get through the first couple of rounds, then I can see her embarking on a deep run. She gets tougher with momentum and can build her level quite quickly. It is so impressive that she has claimed wins during her career against every active grand slam champion, bar Maria Sharapova, who she only played once in 2015 before the Russian's drug ban. No wonder, then, that Konta believes at the start of a tournament she always has a chance of going all the way.
Konta has an aggressive mindset on the court, always going after the ball. Her powerful serve earns her a lot of free points and she repeatedly hits the right spots. The wide angle that she can reach from the deuce court drove opponent Maria Sakkari, the world No 32 from Greece, nuts in Eastbourne - she couldn't do anything with it. When Andrew Fitzpatrick worked with Konta as a coach and hitting partner, he told me the one thing that Jo can always rely on when she walks up to the baseline is her serve. She has great faith in it. If the grass courts are very dry and playing like a hard court, that will further help her.
Konta's present coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, is a good fit. He is very academic and is encouraging her to take more responsibility on the court. This year, I have barely seen her glance towards the coaching box, even during defeats. In the past, she would often panic on the court. Now, she has more variety in her game to utilise, with slice backhands, drop shots and ventures towards the net. There is room for improvement in her volleys, though.
Looking at the top contenders for the title, I am edging towards Ashleigh Barty, the new world No 1 after winning the French Open and Nature Valley Classic in Birmingham back-to-back. Never could I have foreseen this earlier this year, but the way in which the 23-year-old Australian has broken through and taken her game to a new level is so impressive. She has developed from an all-round sportswoman and has transferred her incredible skills to become a creative artist on the court. Her self-belief is rock solid and she now has an aura. She is going to take some beating, that is for sure.
I am intrigued to see how Serena Williams performs after not playing since that odd defeat by 20-year-old Sofia Kenin in the third round of the French Open four weeks ago. I can only assume that she made the decision with her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, that working on her fitness in practice was better than playing a warm-up tournament on grass.
Williams' performance in finishing runner-up here last year after coming back from pregnancy so early was remarkable. But she has yet to win the 24th grand slam singles title that will equal Margaret Court's record and the pressure is building with each tournament that goes by after coming so close at Wimbledon and the US Open last year. She is not getting any younger, now three months short of turning 38, and has not played a lot of tennis this year. But she can always count on her serve on grass. If that is firing, then it will be difficult to beat her.