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Dark horse Konta keeping it all in perspective

Britain's Johanna Konta reacts during a news conference ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su
Britain's Johanna Konta reacts during a news conference ahead of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Edgar Su

By Nick Mulvenney

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Johanna Konta did her best to downplay expectations on Sunday but there was no quieting the chatter around Melbourne Park that, for the first time in decades, Britain has a genuine contender for the Australian Open women's crown.

Having been born and raised until her early teens in Sydney has clearly helped the 25-year-old to a higher profile in a host nation desperate for local success, even by proxy, but there are good reasons why the ninth seed is attracting such attention.

A surprise run to the semi-finals at last year's tournament was followed by a season where Konta won her maiden title at Stanford and moved into the top 10 for the first time, just missing out on a spot at the season-ending WTA Finals.

The chatter reached fever pitch last Friday, however, when Konta simply demolished world number three Agnieszka Radwanska in the city of her birth to claim her second tour title.

Konta's huge improvement over the last year has come on the back of intensive work on the mental side of her game, so it was no surprise that she was not buying into talk of grand slam titles on Sunday.

"I'm definitely very pleased with the level I played," she said of the Sydney International final.

"But we all know that it's not a given. It doesn't decide how you will do in the next event. I'm taking it as a positive from the week itself, but I'm looking to, again, work hard here and really try to do the best that I can here."

Virginia Wade was the last Briton to win the Australian Open back in 1972 and her 1977 Wimbledon triumph remains the last in a grand slam by a British woman.

TRICKY OPENER

"It's always been my dream to be at the top of the game," Konta added when asked about whether she could keep her career on an upward trajectory.

"As a possibility, of course. But I think there's a lot of work to be done between reality and dreams. I think there's work to be done there."

The work starts again on Tuesday in a first round tie against Kirsten Flipkens, who beat Konta in their one previous meeting and reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2013.

"I'm looking forward to the challenge, the opportunity to play her again. She's a great player," Konta said. "She's been around the tour for a long time. That's by no accident."

Konta split with coach Esteban Carril last December soon after her sports psychologist Juan Coto, a friend of the Spaniard, died suddenly at the age of 47.

Belgian Wim Fissette, a former mentor of grand slam champion Kim Clijsters, has taken up the coaching reins and Konta was pleased with how the relationship was going.

"I guess we're doing well together," she laughed. "I think he's a very calm individual, but he's also quite funny. So far we're having a good time."

Having a good time is clearly important to a player like Konta, who struggled to deal with the pressures of the game before she embarked on her meteoric rise.

"I am extremely grateful and really am enjoying what I do," she said. "I really love playing. I love learning. I just try to make the most out of every single day, and therefore really just maximise the career that I have."

(Editing by John O'Brien)

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