Johanna Konta has long been a singular presence in British tennis, a determined loner who conquered her anxieties over several seasons to finally deliver on a talent that has carried her into the upper reaches of the world game.
If the world No 13 has a friend among her Fed Cup teammates it is probably her nearest rival, Heather Watson, who is at 54 in the rankings, and of course they have been thrown together in the first round of the 2020 US Open on Tuesday, thereby ensuring British representation in the women’s draw will be halved inside a few hours on the second day. They could only smile weakly.
“We get on well,” Konta says. “We always have a good chat when we are at the National Tennis Centre. I’d say she is one of the girls I am closer to out of those at home. Regardless of who I play, I compete on the court. Off the court, everything is as normal. I kind of enjoy the whole thing of being at a tournament, so I don’t think that will be any different.”
There was an episode recently, however, on the final day of the team edition of the Battle Of The Brits exhibition week at the National Tennis Centre, when Konta did not look part of the fabric of the British set-up. In fact, as the others celebrated as a group of two randomly selected teams, she was not there at all – except as a cardboard cut-out one of the players had mocked up.
“When I went into the Brits,” Konta explains, “my understanding and my agreement with Jamie [Murray, the organiser] was that I was only ever meant to play two matches. There was never any talk of the kind of events like Fed Cup, where you should be present at the side of the court. There was none of that.
“So, I had scheduled my training accordingly. That’s why I wasn’t there. Obviously the nature of the event changed as the days went on and it became more intense. People took it more seriously. The way I approached it stayed very much the same, from the beginning to the end. I think some people may have misunderstood that, or interpreted it as not supporting. But, actually, no one really knew because no one really asked me. And Jamie never really told anyone that I was only contracted to play two matches anyway, or I should play more. That’s about it.”
In New York, she is playing at a decidedly higher level than Watson. At the same venue last week, it took the rejuvenated Victoria Azarenka, twice a grand slam title winner, to stop her run in the Western & Southern Open semi-finals, while Watson went out in the first round against the Croatia-born American Bernarda Pera in three tough sets.
Konta has prevailed in their two completed matches, most recently on the grass of Nottingham last year, 6-4, 7-6 (7-5), and three years ago in the early rounds at Indian Wells, 6-4, 6-4.
As Watson sees it: “I’m looking forward to playing her again. It’s another opportunity. I don’t find it awkward. I’ve been on the tour for a lot of years now, so I feel like I know a lot of girls very well. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. We know each other’s games very well. We know each other well as people. It doesn’t really change anything.”
Yet, on the eve of the most surreal slam in memory, with apprehension about coronavirus heavy in the air and the men’s locker room rife with rumours of a breakaway, it is Konta who seems most nervous in trying circumstances. Perhaps expectations are higher: Watson has yet to get out of the first round in eight visits to Flushing Meadows, while Konta reached the quarter-finals last year and has twice made the fourth round in her seven main-draw appearances.
As for that cut-out prank, which smacked a little of the schoolyard, it seems to have left a bruise. “It’s a decision and choice they made,” she says, “and I think it reflects more on them than me.”
If she beats Watson and if she forges on to the fourth round – where Azarenka will probably be waiting for her again – and then gets past either the in-form Tunisian Ons Jabeur or the latest grand slam title winner, Sofia Kenin, it will not be a cardboard cut-out of Konta that steps on to a slam semi-final court for the fourth time, but the real thing.