Written by Jen Offord


Monkey Tennis?

How did rising tennis star Johanna Konta make such a rapid progression from the locker room of anonymity to the headlines? Jen Offord wonders if it might be down to her inner Chimp.

Johanna Konta playing tennis

Johanna Konta photo by Naparazzi, via Wikimedia Commons.

Had anyone even heard of Johanna Konta before last week? I know I hadn’t, and I’m actually supposed to care. One thing’s for sure: you’ve heard all about her by now (probably) and, if reports this week are to be believed, she’s quite the advert for Linford Christie’s Persil-inspired Positive Mental Attitude.

An Australia-born Briton, Konta entered the US Open ranked 97th in the world. A relatively unknown name even in British households, she was nestled third behind Laura Robson and Heather Watson.

Having beaten this year’s Wimbledon finalist, Garbiñe Muguruza, and another top 20 ranked player, Andrea Petkovic, her ranking is now projected to be somewhere in the 60s, as she leaves the tournament having suffered defeat in the fourth round by Petra Kvitova.

OK, she’s out, so there’s no amazing fairytale ending to Konta’s US Open, but she’s done alright, you know: this defeat was preceded by an impressive run of 16 wins. But what exactly has caused this turnaround from having previously won just one Grand Slam main draw match? Well, if Britain’s Fed Cup captain Judy Murray is right, it’s the support of a few good men including top “mental resilience coach” Juan Coto.

Previously thought of as “too emotional”, Konta has appeared more composed and in control of late. A shocking defeat back in February is thought to have been the straw that broke the camel’s performance-anxious back, because like most things in life, athletic success is as much of a mental challenge as it is physical.

It’s not just Konta who has benefitted from the help of a sports psychiatrist. Victoria Pendleton and Sir Chris Hoy both put their names to an extensive list of endorsements on the front cover of The Chimp Paradox by Dr Steve Peters. I don’t want to ruin the ending for you, but it’s your Chimp who’s been fucking things up – you need to get him to chill out, he’s a menace.

“Sport is emotional, as the weeping sunburned man in a tracksuit will tell you, come England’s inevitable demise in any international football tournament. But was anyone calling Luis Suárez ‘overly emotional’ when he was biting people?”

I’m not a professional athlete, and chances are you’re not either, but I reckon several of us have suffered from performance anxiety in our professional lives. A particularly virulent strain of it – ‘imposter syndrome’ – is often found in women and it’s a total C. Not a massive surprise when you consider the myriad ways in which society is geared to undermine our confidence. It’s the sense that you are a fraud, that you don’t know what you’re doing and that you’re bound to be unmasked as such, Scooby Doo-style.

It’s an affliction I’ve suffered from at various times in my professional life, including right now, writing about sport – what do I know? But I can’t bake you all a cake to distract you from this and simultaneously make myself more likeable.

The rhetoric around Konta is interesting, however, in that it seems to come back to a perceived lack of control of her emotions. Sport is emotional, as the weeping sunburned man in a tracksuit will tell you, come England’s inevitable demise in any international football tournament. But was anyone calling Luis Suárez “overly emotional” when he was biting people? No, they were calling him weird (it is weird in anyone over the age of five, right?). Was anyone calling David Beckham hysterical when he was red-carded for kicking Diego Simeone during the 1998 World Cup? No, he was petulant and spoilt. What about John McEnroe (I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever heard him referred to as a bellend, in this context)?

So has Konta tamed her beastly Chimp and will her reign of terror continue beyond this tournament? Or was it merely, as her quashed opponent Petkovic charitably implied, the fortuitous event of not having had the flu like everyone else at the US Open? Who knows. But modest to the last, Konta says she’s not “cured cancer or anything” and nor was she “blown away” by her performance. But of her £141,000 pay cheque she says, “I’m just satisfied that I get a little bit of candy for doing well.”

I’m willing to believe she probably earned it.


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Written by Jen Offord

Jen is a writer from Essex, which isn’t relevant because she lives in London, but she likes people to know it. As well as daft challenges, she likes cats, cheese and Beyonce. @inspireajen