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Secret tragedy behind success of Britain's new tennis golden girl Johanna Konta

Mirror logo Mirror 13/07/2017 Warren Manger
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During the biggest game of her career, Johanna Konta could easily have lost her nerve.

But the new golden girl of British tennis kept her cool this week to win her way into semi-finals, where she will face five-times women’s singles champion Venus Williams.

And her success is largely down to one man, sports psychologist Juan Coto, who helped her control her on-court anxiety. Tragically, the Spaniard, who transformed Johanna’s career, took his own life in November last year, aged 47.

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As Johanna becomes the first British woman to make it to a Wimbledon semi-final since Virginia Wade in 1978, Coto is no doubt at the forefront of her mind.

The 26-year-old player has said: “Juan was a tremendous influence on me. It’s about more than just tennis – it’s about my life in general and my happiness as a person.”

“He’s still very much a part of everything I do, everything that I will continue to do in this sport and this career, and most likely beyond that as well.

“He has gifted me with an incredible amount of tools and habits that I still, to this day, am looking to improve.”

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When Johanna met Coto, through her former coach, in November, 2014, she was ranked 146th in the world and prone to cracking under pressure.

But their regular telephone chats taught her to keep calm on court by focussing on small achievements, like winning a serve, rather than the whole match.

He told her to rely on “trigger words you can say in your head, words that keep you thinking positively – ‘keep fighting’, ‘you can do it’, ‘that point doesn’t matter’.”

The results were staggering. Johanna climbed more than 100 places in the world rankings in less than 12 months. By the time Coto died, in Guildford, Surrey, she was in the top

20. She is now ranked seventh.

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But Coto’s death devastated Johanna and she stopped using her mindfulness techniques as she struggled with her grief. But, earlier this year, she started a new regime, convinced Coto would want her to continue.

Johanna said: “I started working with a life coach a couple of months ago. She knew Juan, she worked a little bit with him as well. I try to spend about 10 minutes on it a day.”

Coto’s death is not the only obstacle Johanna she has had to deal with in her rise to the top of tennis.

As a child, she was told she didn’t have the talent to make it in the game and, later, her family fell into debt through funding her coaching. Johanna, who has lived in Eastbourne, East Sussex, for more than a decade, was born in Sydney, Australia, to Hungarian parents – Gabor, a hotel manager, and Gabriella, a dentist.

Sporting success is in her blood. Her grandfather Tamas Kertesz played for Hungarian football team Ferencváros, turned out twice for his country in the 1950s, and managed the Ghanian national soccer squad.

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Johanna first held a tennis racquet when she was eight years old, living in Collaroy, northern Sydney. She immediately fell in love with the sport, which worked well with her drive to succeed.

She said: “I didn’t have many friends when I was younger, I think because I was competitive. My mum was reminding me recently that it was a nightmare. Everything was a race. I have an elder half-sister, and I made her cry once playing Monopoly.”

Four years after Johanna took up the sport, the Australian tennis federation stopped her funding because she “lacked the requisite talent and potential”.

Her parents decided to home-school her, then, at age 14, they sent her to the Sanchez-Casal tennis academy in Barcelona, Spain, which Andy Murray also attended. Johanna didn’t see her parents for long periods, and spent her spare time teaching herself maths and history.

She said of her time there: “What was most difficult was that if anything went wrong my parents couldn’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll be there in a couple of hours’.

“Flights cost thousands of dollars and you’re 26 hours away.”

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At times, Johanna admits she found herself “hating” tennis. After 15 months in Spain, she moved to Britain with her parents, first to London’s East End, where her father worked at the Marriott hotel, then on to Eastbourne.

At first, her parents struggled to fund her lessons at Sutton Tennis Academy in South London, where she trained for 11 months.

But her performance in junior tournaments soon caught the eye of the Lawn Tennis Association, which began supporting her. And she’s currently dating Jackson Wade, video and photography manager at the LTA.

Johanna’s already earned more than £4million in prize money and, with her profile rocketing this week, she’s on course to rake in much more.

And, as Britain’s last remaining singles player in the running at Wimbledon, the bookies have made her second favourite to be BBC Sports Personality of the Year, behind world heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua.

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Off court, Johanna loves knitting, crochet and baking to calm her nerves. She says she is not superstitious, but she always has the same breakfast before big games and she carries a mascot.

Johanna said: “I have had a teddy bear in my tennis bag since I was 11 or 12. It has a Hungarian name and doesn’t really translate to English.”

She makes a joke of the fact she holds three passports – UK, Australian and Hungarian – describing herself as “the female version of Jason Bourne”. Her family retains some ties Down Under, as her half-sister Eva is married to Aussie Rules star Shane Mumford.

But despite this, there is no doubt where her loyalties lie. Johanna has repeatedly rebuffed Australia’s attempts to reclaim her as one of their own.

In her run to the semi-finals of the Australian Open last year, she said: “At every press conference it was, ‘Will you come back?’ And every time I had to politely decline.

“My home is very much in the UK. That is where I grew up and that is where my heart is.”

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