The pressure to perform well in a player’s homeland Slam is naturally high. But nothing in tennis quite compares to the microscope British contenders are put under come Wimbledon. Wimbledon, after all, is the one tennis tournament known to the entire world on a one-name basis. “It’s our Super Bowl, our Masters,” said Pete Sampras.
As recently as a year ago, Johanna Konta of Great Britain had gone 0-4 at Wimbledon. In 2016, she won one match. But now she’s reached the top ten, the first British woman to be ranked that high in 30 years.
Earlier this week, Konta lost in the second round of Birmingham to Coco Vandeweghe. A few days earlier, she’d reached the finals in Nottingham. Enter her mind and you’d likely feel in reasonably good position as Wimbledon neared. Another comment from Sampras: “When you come to the grass, you care less about winning all your matches and more about getting in lots of match play.” On that count, Konta appears to be ready for a go at the All England Club.
Enter the microscope. It happened at a press conference just after Konta’s loss to Vandeweghe. Never mind that Vandeweghe’s two career titles have come on grass. Never mind that Vandeweghe has reached the quarterfinals at Wimbledon and earlier this year got to the semis at the Australian Open. In other words, for Vandeweghe to have beaten Konta was hardly a major upset.
Here is the transcript of a rather awkward interaction between Konta and journalist James Nursey of The Mirror:
Nursey: Where does this leave your Wimbledon preparations now? Do you feel that this is a significant blow, another defeat in a short space of time? Or do you feel fairly confident of going to Eastbourne...
Konta: Another defeat in a short space of time? I think I did OK, I made finals last week. Cheers for the positivity.
Nursey: Sorry. It's a fact though, isn't it...
Konta: What's the fact?
Nursey: After losing Sunday in slightly surprising circumstances to the world No. 70, you've gone out here to an unseeded player in a short space of time.
Nursey: Is that a big blow to your Wimbledon preparations?
Konta: Is it a big blow for you?
Nursey: No, I like to see the British players do well so I'm not trying to be awkward.
Konta: I think you're doing a pretty good job of that. Point being that I think I actually play two good matches here.
And so the microscope goes to work. Two years ago, the thinking among British sports editors: Who is Johanna Konta? Then, as she rose: We are smitten with Johanna Konta. Now: Johanna Konta must surely be on edge.
When Nursey used terms like “significant blow” and “big blow,” surely he didn’t expect Konta to say words to this affect: “Yes, you’re right. Though I reached a final last week and am ranked number seven in the world, my confidence for the biggest tournament in the world is plummeting. I’m glad you pointed this out to me.”
There were further articles analyzing Konta’s motivations and emotions. Of course this is only the preliminary trickle in what by the start of Wimbledon will be a flood.
Fair enough; and, often, better than good enough. British tennis writing is different and frequently better than US tennis writing for two major reasons. First, the prominence of Wimbledon makes the entire country far more tennis-literate and versant with the nuances of what happens in between the lines. Second, on a more macro basis, British reporters craft their stories more like essays (what Americans would call “columns”) than the more factual, quote-based American style. “You Americans and your quotes and statistics,” a British journalist once scoffed to me. “You’ve seen enough tennis. Why don’t you just write what you saw rather than rely on the commentary from some teenaged athlete?”
The upside of the British approach is intellectual independence and, at best, lyrical prose. The downside is a beguiling mix of partisan engagement and sardonic distance. Sad as it to say this, but when major contenders such as Tim Henman, Andy Murray and Johanna Konta emerge, a British newspaper journalist summons up two words: job security. That is different than writers in the United States. My fate as a writer is not tied to the results of the top Americans. But it’s different in Great Britain. Henman’s press conferences often took on the atmosphere of a séance, his compatriots gathered in rapture in hope of at last eliciting what it would mean to accomplish deliverance at SW19. Love, need, hate – all embodied in the frame of a single subject.
Given this dependence, distance is a natural reflex. Added to this is a deeply observational tone to British writing, wed to a strong adherence to a class system that carefully draws the lines between those great participants who make history and we witnesses who should merely settle for being ordinary. As one British journalist wrote last month during Roland Garros, “Murray’s is the contentment of the driven champion, not necessarily that of a banker, coalminer or journalist.” Gee, I didn’t realize that as a journalist I’m scarcely driven. Alas, poor Konta: the challenge of being scrutinized by journalists who see the world more as theatre critics-observers than players-participants.