In his first interview since becoming Johanna Konta’s new coach, Michael Joyce explained on Friday why he was so excited about their partnership. He spoke warmly about her gifts and potential, but his central point was that she reminded him of his most famous client – five-time slam champion Maria Sharapova.
Joyce was the coach on deck for two of Sharapova’s major wins, in Melbourne and New York. He was also the man who steered her to world No 1 in 2005.
Now he says that Konta – who will begin her Australian Open campaign against world No 92 Madison Brengle next week – has many of the same assets.
“She has a lot of characteristics like Maria,” says Joyce, himself an accomplished player who reached No 64 in the world in 1996. “They both want it really bad. They both aren’t going to cut corners to get there, or leave any stone unturned.
“I like the way Jo plays. I like the offensive-style player, and I think hers is a simple game if she’s executing. The hard part is to get them to do it day in and day out and to have confidence, to know they belong and that they can win a lot of matches on their terms.”
Joyce’s comments might sound surprising, given the superficial contrasts between Sharapova – the prodigy who won Wimbledon at 17 – and the late-blooming Konta.
Take the mental side of the game, for example. Is not Konta’s tendency to become anxious under pressure very different from Sharapova’s icy resolve? Not according to Joyce, who believes that he helped to create that bulletproof image in the first place.
“I’ll tell you, when Maria was 16 or 17, she got flustered,” says Joyce, 44. “She hated the junk-ball players. Maria might have been a little bit better, especially when she was younger, at hiding everything. But every player has had a freak-out moment. Some people have a freak-out six months. It’s just that a lot of players don’t like to talk about it.
“What Maria does as a competitor, I feel like I have a lot to with that, especially in her younger years. Half the battle is not showing your opponent things and not showing the way you feel. I have no doubt Jo will improve that as well. And the more she improves that, the better she’s going to end up being in the long run.”
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Joyce was asked about the regular emotional crises that his new client used to experience, and which held her back through her early 20s. It was only after Konta started working with a mental coach – the late Juan Coto – that she began to deliver on her physical potential.
“I saw some of those meltdowns a few years ago before I really knew her,” says Joyce. “I remember telling her coach, ‘I don’t know exactly what you’ve done, but it’s pretty amazing to see a girl at her age be able to turn around her career like that’. So, from a distance, I admired what she was able to do. Obviously, spending the time with her, especially once we had decided to work together, I was informed of a lot of the stuff she had done.”
For me, Konta has as good a chance as anybody. It's just there's probably 25 people who can do it
There is still room for improvement here. Only last week, Konta seemed to become overwhelmed by the pressure of defending a title in Sydney. Coming into the interview room, after a straight-sets loss against Agnieszka Radwanska in her opening match, she said: “One thing I would like to do better next time is panic less.” Her level did at least improve after a visit from Joyce in the second set, but it was not enough to save her.
“Jo’s openness actually makes my job a little easier,” says Joyce. “Because I’ve worked with girls before where I knew that was happening, but they pretended it wasn’t. After Sydney, I told her, ‘Maybe it’s good it happened’. When I went on court, I tried to take the pressure off. I hope that’s something I can help her with.”
Joyce’s role with Sharapova ended in 2011. “Over time, he felt less like a coach than a brother,” Sharapova wrote in her recent autobiography. “And you know how it is – at some point you just stop listening to your brother.”
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After that, he worked with Jessie Pegula, a lower-ranked American, before signing up with two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka in March. That arrangement proved short-lived, however, because Azarenka became mired in a child-custody battle that continues to keep her off the tour.
“I was really excited when I started working with Vika,” says Joyce. “I wanted to be with someone who I thought could win a grand slam, because I kind of missed that. Then when the opportunity came up with Jo I knew right off the bat that she’s a contender to get to the top. She’s proven that. She’s got pretty close. To be part of that journey with her is really exciting for me.”
The landscape of women’s tennis is very different now than when he was steering Sharapova, however. “I feel the top 10 maybe aren’t as good as 10 years ago, depth-wise,” he says. “I mean, thinking back to when I was with Maria, you had Serena and Venus and Davenport, Clijsters and Henin. You could go down the list of a really good top-10, 15 players. But I feel like girls who are ranked 40 or 50 now are a lot better than then.
“In the past, you’d look at a grand slam and say there’s probably three or four girls who can win it. Usually Serena was right up there, of course.
“Now you can look at this tournament and say there’s probably 20 girls who can win, maybe even more. I am sure nobody thought Sloane [Stephens] was going to win the US Open. Nobody thought [Jelena] Ostapenko was going to win the French Open. It’s wide open.”
Is Konta – who is seeded No 9 here – one of those potential champions? “Absolutely,” Joyce replies. “For me, she has as good a chance as anybody. It’s just there’s probably 25 people who can do it.”