Ana Konjuh looked like the next big thing. In 2013, she won both the Australian Open and US Open girls’ singles crowns on her way to becoming the top-ranked junior in the world. She was 15.
That tournament in Flushing Meadows was her last as a junior, and she started what was expected to be a promising professional career. In the Croat’s first tour-level match just a few months later, she beat then-No. 14 Roberta Vinci three days after turning 16. Only days later, she decided to undergo right elbow surgery in order to deal with pain she had tolerated for years.
“I mean I had that problem since I was 12 or 13, so I was just playing the junior level with it, taking painkillers,” Konjuh said. “That’s not the result [I wanted], that I have to just take painkillers and everything’s going to be OK. So I needed to find the solution for my elbow, and I think we found that.”
Any momentum she had from her junior success to the big win over Vinci was out the window. Instead, Konjuh spent four months away from competitive tournaments to recover. That was not the only injury she has dealt with, though. Konjuh has also suffered from wrist problems and a stress fracture in her back. Breaking onto the professional scene is tough enough, forget dealing with a myriad of injuries as a teenager.
“It’s tough to come back after that every time and you know it’s a part of our job, the injuries, the time off,” Konjuh said. “It’s a bit frustrating when you’re young ... [but] I think what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Earlier this season, Konjuh faced adversity that had nothing to do with her health. In April she parted ways with Kristijan Schneider, her coach of seven years.
“I think that we kind of got sick of each other,” Konjuh said with a laugh. “I grew up with him, so we knew each other just too well and it was time for a change.”
Konjuh said that naturally it took time to get used to working with her new coach, Jelena Kostanic Tosic, who climbed as high as No. 32 in the rankings. But after going 5-5 in tour-level matches ahead of Wimbledon, she was on the doorstep of a breakthrough. Playing No. 3 seeded Agnieszka Radwanska at the All England Club, Konjuh served for the match twice in the third set and held three match points. But at 7-7 in the decider, she turned her ankle on a ball while running up to the net to retrieve a Radwanska drop shot. She did not win a point the rest of the match.
“I had three match points before so I was a bit sad to not take the opportunities, and then that happened with the ankle so I was like, ‘Oh god, really? Another month off?’” Konjuh said. “But in that moment I was just sad that I didn’t get the opportunity to finish the match.”
It was not a major injury, though. And despite losing early in Rio and New Haven, Konjuh came into the US Open healthy, which was perhaps most important. She won three matches against higher-ranked opponents to earn a rematch with Radwanska in the round of 16. There, she would not let another opportunity slip away, upsetting the Pole, 6-4, 6-4, in a powerful effort in which she dominated play with 38 winners.
“I was very impressed. I loved what I saw last night,” ESPN tennis analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said. “That type of tennis was Top 10 tennis.”
Just a few years ago, Konjuh was on top of the world. But while the time since has not gone as planned, she has proven this US Open why she will in fact be a star in the future.
“I think the main thing is to stay healthy,” Fernandez said. “If she could get on a patch where she can play consistently week in and week out and have faith that her body is going to hold up, then there’s no question in my mind that she should be in the Top 20, at least.”
Konjuh’s delayed breakthrough to the spotlight was not for a lack of talent nor a sense of overwhelming pressure. She does not think of her junior success today.
“I mean I somehow forgot the juniors,” Konjuh said. “I mean, yeah, it was the good old days. But I was 15 or 16 at the time. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into and I think that’s just a part, a step to the pro level and I was just trying to prepare myself for it. I’m not adding any pressure.”
“My season wasn’t that well this year so I just came here maybe [thinking I would play] a round or two, that would be great,” said Konjuh, who entered the tournament at No. 92 in the world. “But here I am playing the quarters of the US Open.”
Many players dream of these moments, but for the teenager, this is reality. On Wednesday, she will play fellow first-time Slam quarterfinalist and No. 10 seeded Karolina Pliskova for a spot in the final four.
“I told myself like last night, ‘When you fall asleep and get up in the morning it’s going to be better, I’m going to settle in,’” Konjuh said. “But I’m not feeling any different from yesterday and I’m just trying to get better each day and I’m not going to stop right now.”