2015 was a big year of transition for Ana Konjuh. After getting surgery on her right elbow in January of 2014, the former junior world number one was looking forward to playing a full year of tennis, solely dedicated to the professional level. Despite her struggles with consistency from tournament to tournament — something very common for a youngster, Konjuh was able to win her first WTA title at the inaugural Aegon Open Nottingham, as well as end the season with more wins than losses (23-17).
Konjuh's Struggles and Impressive Rebound in Prague
The first five months of the season were brutally difficult for Konjuh. After winning her first match of the season over eighth seed Mona Barthel at the ASB Classic, the Croatian struggled to find her form, losing her next three matches which would ultimately put a bitter end to her brief stay down under. After losing in the first round of qualifying for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Konjuh lost in the second round of qualifying in Indian Wells, Miami and Stuttgart, which was admittedly, a bitter pill for the youngster to swallow.
However, starting in Prague, things began to change. After winning all three rounds of qualifying at the loss of just twelve games, the WTA rising star made it to the second round of the main draw, beating longtime junior rival Belinda Bencic before succumbing to Klara Koukalova in three sets.
Konjuh Victorious in Nottingham
After not having any decent results on clay after playing in the Czech capital, Konjuh travelled to the United Kingdom rejuvenated and ready to make a breakthrough at the inaugural Aegon Open Nottingham. The Croatian’s game was all about taking the ball early and hitting nice and flat, with little net projection. Normally, on other surfaces, this strategy would be considered low-percentage play, which could lead to an abundance of errors if the player’s timing was off. However, on grass, even if this play is somewhat perilous, players are encouraged to use this strategy because the ball comes off the turf at a much higher velocity. As a result, the opposition has even less time to react, and often feels rushed because of it. For Konjuh, her naturally aggressive game style suited the grass perfectly, which was one reason for her success on the lush, ryegrass courts.
After cruising past Shelby Rogers and sixth seed Casey Dellacqua, the 17-year-old was forced to wait an extra two days to play her quarter final match, because of the abrupt inclement weather changes in Nottingham. As she took to the court on Sunday afternoon, Konjuh faced Sachia Vickery — whom she defeated in straight sets — and grass court specialist Alison Riske, within hours of each other. After battling on a brisk, sunny day in the small English town, it was the world number 87 who was victorious, winning 6-4, 6-3 to book her place in the final. “I didn’t start well this year, and I’ve kind of been in a bad mood the last few months, and I came here with nothing to expect,” Konjuh said after the semi final. “Now I’m in the finals, so it's a really exciting result for me.”
Riske, Konjuh’s second opponent on Sunday, was also gracious in defeat. “She's already an amazing player, but that girl’s got some big game,” the American said. “I was very impressed. People will be hearing a lot about her in the future.”
In the final, the WTA rising star faced seasoned veteran Monica Niculescu. After playing two singles matches a day prior, Konjuh looked weary-legged as she went down a set in a half hour, but rallied to win the match 1-6, 6-4, 6-2, claiming her maiden WTA singles title. At the age of 17, she became the youngest first-time title winner on the WTA since Tamira Paszek broke through in 2006.
“It means a lot, especially because it’s the first year for you guys here. It feels great, I didn’t expect it. I came here two days before to acclimatize on grass and after five matches, I've won the tournament, so it feels great. I will remember that — it's going to hold a special place in my heart, this tournament.”
Konjuh’s Up-And-Down Second Half of the Year
After Nottingham, a lot was expected of Konjuh but unfortunately, she was unable to breakthrough. In her Wimbledon opener, the Croatian won just four games against 25th seed Alizé Cornet, which put an end to her breakthrough grass court season.
Three weeks later, Konjuh travelled back to North America to begin her Emirates Airline U.S. Open Series. First up, the Bank of the West Classic held at Stanford University. After winning her opening match, the Croatian number three showed glimpses of what she is capable of, but faltered in the important moments against fifth seed and eventual champion Angelique Kerber. A couple of days later, Konjuh travelled from the West to the East coast, where she was forced to qualify in order to secure a place in the main draw of the Rogers Cup presented by National Bank. After a busy day of play in Toronto, the 17-year-old faced Misaki Doi in the last match on Court 4. Doi, a Japanese left-hander, utilized the advantages of being left-handed to their maximum capacity, mixing up the rallies with different spins and angles. In the end, it was the Japanese number one who was able to prevail, defeating her younger opposition 6-2, 7-6(4).
Very shortly after her defeat, the Croatian travelled to the Buckeye State of Ohio, where she would attempt to qualify for the Western and Southern Open. This time, Konjuh would have better luck at the qualifying stages, earning a place in the main draw with impressive wins over third seed Johanna Larsson and Misaki Doi. The Dubrovnik native was looking to continue her momentum into the main draw against Karin Knapp, but squandered an early break advantage before being undone by the Italian, 7-5, 6-1.
After suffering a straight sets defeat to Johanna Larsson -- whom she beat in Cincinnati less than a week prior, Konjuh travelled to the Big Apple where she would play in her first U.S. Open main draw appearance. In her opener, the 17-year-old faced Tatjana Maria -- ten years her senior -- but managed to defeat the German 6-4, 6-4 in exactly 90 minutes. At first glance, this match appeared to have been relatively simple for Konjuh, but it was far from that. After breaking in the third game of the match before taking the opening set, the Croatian needed two chances to serve out the match, and an astounding eight match points before she could get over the line. In the second round, the youngster met fellow WTA rising star Daria Kasatkina, who was a lucky loser into the 128-player main draw. Both women served exceptionally well but the ninth game in both sets one in two proved to be the difference maker. After looking relatively comfortable on serve for the entire set, Konjuh faultered when serving at 4-all in sets one and two, ultimately conceding two breaks that would cost her the match. Kasatkina used her big, heavy ground strokes to power past Konjuh 6-4, 6-4 in just shy of an hour and a half.
Less than three weeks later, the Croatian number three was back in action, having travelled halfway across the world to the bustling Japanese capital of Tokyo. Due to her ranking, Konjuh was forced to play qualifying but that didn't stop her from playing an exceptional tournament. After winning all three of her qualifying matches without dropping a set, the world number 68 followed up her great performance in qualifying with a 6-0, 3-6, 6-3 win over 2015 U.S. Open quarterfinalist Kristina Mladenovic. Unfortunately, all great things had to come to an end, as Konjuh was brutally outclassed by top seed Caroline Wozniacki 6-2, 6-2 in 82 minutes. Despite the loss, Konjuh was pleased with her form and hoped it would translate into even better results as she headed into the final events of the arduous 2015 season.
Unfortunately, things didn't really work out the way the 17-year-old would have liked. After Tokyo, Konjuh was attempting to qualify for the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open when she injured her back during her second round match against Julia Goerges, a match she would ultimately go on to lose. That loss proved to be the final match of her season as she was forced to pull out of Beijing, Moscow and Poitiers because of that injury. According to Konjuh's team, they do not expect this injury to impact her start to the 2016 season, which is great news for everyone involved.
2015 was a very memorable year for Ana Konjuh in both a positive and a negative way. Despite not being able to sustain her level week-in week-out, Konjuh was able to get some good results every once in a while, which is expected for someone so young when they attempt to breakthrough at the professional level. However, as she heads into 2016, the 17-year-old will turn 18, which means she will be able to play an unlimited number of WTA and ITF tournaments. As a result, more expectations will be placed on her young shoulders and she will need to prove that she's the real deal in the coming years. If she stays motivated and injury free, she could prove to the tennis world that she's here to stay, and she could reach the upper eschelons of women's tennis in the next decade or so.