Johanna Konta’s run to the final of the Italian Open may have surprised many in tennis but not her coach Dimitri Zavialoff.
The experienced Frenchman began working with the British number one at the end of last season after an underwhelming year with American Michael Joyce, and the signs are that Konta is once again on an upward trajectory.
Last week in Rome, Konta demonstrated hitherto unseen clay-court prowess to defeat Sloane Stephens, Venus Williams and Kiki Bertens and reach the second biggest final of her career, catapulting her into the picture as a French Open dark horse.
Zavialoff told Press Association Sport: “I know how well she can play and I always had that in the back of my mind that at some point she would win good matches, and that’s not a surprise.
“I was just waiting for when it would happen and it did happen on clay. That’s great. We will see for the coming weeks and tournaments, and what I know is she is a fantastic player and anyone that will go on court will have troubles to beat her.”
The Rome result was Konta’s best since she reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2017. That led to feelings of burnout and a plummet down the rankings from a high of four to 48.
She is now back up to 26, high enough to be seeded in Paris, and it is easy to see how Zavialoff’s calm manner has helped a player who has at times panicked on court.
He said: “Having a tough moment being 50 or 40 or 30 in the world, it’s OK, no? It’s all perspectives.
“Playing matches is very demanding year after year. At some point maybe all players and all coaches have been scouting her and they knew what to do a little bit more than when you’re an upcoming player.
“She needed to adapt and also the ongoing evolution of her game is something that is always there. I’m trying to help her to stick with this and let’s see where it goes.”
Zavialoff is a very familiar face on tour having coached Stan Wawrinka for 15 years and another Swiss, Timea Bacsinszky, for five, and our interview is briefly interrupted so he can exchange greetings with Roger Federer.
Zavialoff likes his players to be self-sufficient on court and Konta’s resurgence has partly been driven by a growing variety in her game.
The 28-year-old’s bread and butter will always be a strong serve and fierce groundstrokes taken very early, but she has been playing with more spin on clay while the drop shots that at times have appeared a downright liability have also become a real weapon.
“I like some unexpected shots,” said Zavialoff. “We know tennis is not a science, being perfect does not exist. She’s much better than we think with this. It just takes time to realise and to be able to do it whenever you want.”
The first challenge for the pair this week is for Konta to finally win a main-draw match at Roland Garros at the fifth time of asking when she takes on German qualifier Antonia Lottner on Monday.
Zavialoff gave the vocal equivalent of a Gallic shrug when asked to try to explain her indifferent record on clay before this year.
“She knows how to play on clay,” he said. “She won matches, so it’s not like she was stepping on court and she was completely lost,” he said. “Is there an explanation for everything?”
After Paris comes the grass-court season, building up, in five weeks’ time, to Wimbledon, where Konta may well represent Britain’s best hope for success.
Zavialoff is looking forward to experiencing the All England Club with a British player, saying: “I know from what I’ve seen from Andy or Jo, there is a lot of support, which is great. Expectations are the expectations. But, I think, people want her to do well, which is always a good thing.”
As for whether fans can hope for more of the same excitement that greeted Konta’s run two years ago, Zavialoff added: “If she feels good with her tennis, she will be tough to beat. And the more her game is rich with the options she takes, the more troubles the others will have.”