Before Ana Konjuh got a chance to live her teenage dream, she had to wake up from a nightmare.
Well before rain ravaged the inaugural edition of the Aegon Open in Nottingham, the Croatian teenager was ravaging her way through the bottom half of the International-level WTA event. The youngest player in the world’s Top 100, Konjuh defeated American Shelby Rogers 6-0, 6-3 in her first match on grass since making the third round at Wimbledon a year ago, before defeating No. 5 seed Casey Dellacqua, 6-4, 6-2 to reach the quarterfinals.
She was to take on American qualifier Sachia Vickery in the quarterfinals on Friday, but Konjuh and her peers were forced to wait…and wait. While the other three quarterfinals were completed as scheduled, rain forced the match between the two to be held over to the next day — on the scheduled semifinal day. Mother Nature had other plans, washing out play on Saturday and forcing a staggering seven matches to be scheduled on Sunday across singles and doubles.
With all of this no doubt weighing on Konjuh’s mind, her Sunday got off to an inauspicious start — off the court, that is.
Several hours later, Konjuh and Vickery — with the winner now scheduled to play three matches on the day — finally got on court, and the former wasted little time in defeating the latter, 6-2, 6-2 to move on to her second career WTA semifinal. Later in the day, Konjuh returned to the court against another American, noted grass-court lover Alison Riske, for a semifinal that was stopped not once, but twice, due to rain. With light fading and Monica Niculescu awaiting, the two returned to court and the organizers made the decision to push the final to Monday; none of this seemed to matter to Konjuh, who defeated Riske 6-4, 6-3 to advance to the final without the loss of a set.
Early on in Monday’s championship, the big-hitting Croatian was befuddled and bemused by Niculescu’s unconventional game, which had seen her take down Varvara Lepchenko and Agnieszka Radwanska en route to the final. Konjuh fell behind *0-5 in the opening set, before getting on the board only to see Niculescu serve out the set at love moments later. The 17-year-old could’ve been forgiven for getting demoralized; she wouldn’t have been the first or the last player driven mad by the Romanian’s patented brand of slice-and-dice tennis.
Konjuh did just the opposite, however, and kept her cool — just as she did all week — as her groundstrokes began to find their mark. She secured the early second set break and was off to a canter, digging out of a 0-40 hole to take a 5-2* lead. Although Niculescu got the set back on serve, Konjuh remained undaunted — firing a forehand return that was too much for the charging Romanian to handle to tie the match at one set apiece. She started the final set in identical fashion, as she secured the early break before breaking at love to seal the 1-6, 6-4, 6-2 when Niculescu’s final ball sailed long.
She was faced with adversity around seemingly every corner in Nottingham, but the 2013 Australian Open and US Open junior champion has had to overcome her share of it — the kind that isn’t of the weather- or slice forehand-related variety — multiple times in her young career.
Running her domination of the junior circuit to 18 consecutive matches at that point, Konjuh dedicated her win Down Under in 2013 to her elder sister, Antonia, who had been fighting for her life due to a disease that caused inflammation in her brain. With her sister’s health improved and junior tennis behind her, Konjuh was awarded a main draw wildcard to the 2014 ASB Classic in Auckland and stunned top-seeded Roberta Vinci in the opening round in her first WTA main draw match. Shortly after, she qualified for her first women’s Grand Slam tournament Down Under, defeating Diana Marcinkevica, Mathilde Johansson and Olga Savchuk before losing to the eventual champion, Li Na.
Trouble was around the corner, however, as just 10 days after her first Grand Slam main draw appearance, Konjuh underwent elbow surgery that put her on the sidelines for the next four months. She reached the semifinals of her first event back, before again coming through the qualifying to play in the main draw of her second career Grand Slam at Wimbledon. She fared much better the second time around, as Konjuh upset Marina Erakovic and Yanina Wickmayer — both ranked 120 spots above her in the rankings — to reach the third round. Her good form continued, as she defeated Top 40 players Magdalena Rybarikova and Elina Svitolina en route to her first career WTA semifinal in Istanbul, and cracked the Top 100 after reaching the quarterfinals in Osaka.
A year later, the win in Nottingham puts Konjuh at No. 55 in the world rankings, firmly cementing her place as the youngest player in the world’s elite. With her victory, she became the youngest player to win a WTA title since Tamira Paszek in 2006 — in the same week where her junior rival, Belinda Bencic, came off second-best to Camila Giorgi in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. Under immense pressure and up against an imperfect storm of circumstances, the 17-year-old showed tenacity and poise rarely exhibited by the game’s most battle-tested veterans to come away with her first WTA title.
With all said and done, Konjuh goes home with a great story to tell, a trophy and some champagne to celebrate.
(She just can’t drink it.)