It seems unlikely but Johanna Konta, the 26-year-old world No 9 born in Sydney to Hungarian parents but who now appears to be the most English of English roses, has found a kindred spirit in her new coach, Michael Joyce.
Joyce is 44 and from America. As a player, he never got beyond No 64 in the world and, now working as a coach, he is as bald as a coot, laid back and remarkably talkative. He is also a man with a gilt-edged CV: it was Joyce who coached Maria Sharapova to two grand slam titles and the world No 1 ranking between 2004 and 2011. Since the end of last year, he has been working with Konta.
Konta’s rise through the rankings in the past couple of years has been well documented: the gifted athlete with an aggressive game who only turned her career around when she employed a mental coach to teach her how to supress her anxieties and allow herself to play freely. It is that – the root of Konta’s complex character – that Joyce recognised instantly.
“When you’re a tennis player, everybody kind of rates you on your ranking or what you did at a tournament,” he said. “I’d be at a party and somebody would say ‘oh, what are you ranked?’ ‘64’. ‘Oh, sorry about that’. ‘Oh, you’re ranked 64 – keep trying!’ And it’s easy to become like this number. And you have to learn in a way, and I actually didn’t do it, as a player, I didn’t do it very good. I got caught up in points and ranking and so forth as players do.
“If you can take your losses and wins without too much emotion in either direction, I think you’ll look back at the end and probably [have] accomplished even more. And so I’ve always had that philosophy since I’ve been coaching and so Jo, when I talked to her about it, it’s kind of what she likes to think.
“So right off the bat, we had similar mentalities like that.”
Understanding Konta’s frailties was the first step but Joyce soon recognised her obvious strengths – and they were remarkably similar to those of Sharapova.
“Jo has a lot of characteristics like Maria,” he said. “They both want it really bad. They both aren’t going to cut any corners to get there. They’re not going to leave any stone unturned. So when it comes to that, it’s pretty easy for me.
“I’ll tell you, when Maria was 16 or 17, she got flustered. Maria might have been a little bit better, especially when she was younger, at hiding everything, but at the same time it’s one of those things. I think Jo hides it pretty well too, to an extent, but that’s something she can work on.”
With the Australian Open starting on Monday, Joyce is getting excited. Ten years ago, when Sharapova was at the height of her powers, he believes the women’s top ten was stronger than it is now. That said, he also feels that the overall standard of the world’s top 50 is better now than then.
The end result is that the major tournaments are wide open and that leaves Konta with as good a chance as anyone of lifting the silverware.
“I have no doubt Jo can win a slam. It’s just that there’s probably 25 other people that can do it,” he said. “I like the way Jo plays, I like the offensive style player, I feel like I can relate to her game better than some other girls. I’m pretty relaxed, I’m pretty calm. She’s definitely not the type of player you’ve got to yell at and try to push.”
That said, Joyce knows that his experiences with Sharapova can help him shape Konta into a champion in waiting.
“A lot of what Maria does as a competitor, I feel like I have a lot to with that, especially in her younger years,” he said. “When the opportunity came up with Jo I knew right off the bat that she’s a contender to get to the top,” he said. “She’s proven that, she’s gotten pretty close. To be part of that journey with her is really exciting for me.”