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What Makes Johanna Konta an "Acceptable Immigrant"?

Despite an early Wimbledon exit, Johanna Konta is Britain's number one female tennis player. She's also an immigrant. What makes her acceptable at a time when immigration is considered increasingly taboo in British society?
Photo: Hannah McKay/EPA

Venus Williams wearily hovered on the baseline in the burning Melbourne sun. The nine-time Grand Slam winner was considering how to halt her opponent, who was serving at match point. With the ball hurtling towards her, Williams elected to adopt the smash-it-and-see technique, but her effort flew into the net. Across the court, Johanna Konta wielded a moderate fist-pump to celebrate her victory in the opening round of this year's Australian Open.


Britain's number one had obviously featured in the minds of tennis fans before, but this was the first time that she truly entered the wider nation's consciousness. Konta was suddenly popping up in conversations on a weekday morning between commuters, whose knowledge of tennis over the past decade stretched to Andy Murray's performances at Wimbledon. Now they were extending their repertoire to include questions like, "Did you see that Jo Konta won in straight sets again?" or, "At the end of the day though, can she do it on grass?"

Konta did keep winning in Australia – all the way to the semi-finals. She arrived at Wimbledon this year as the number 16 seed, but was unfortunate to come up against former finalist Eugenie Bouchard. The Canadian is unseeded, but appeared to be back to her best when she beat Konta by two sets to one (6-3/1-6/6-1) on Thursday evening.

At 25 Konta will get more opportunities to shine in SW19. But, as she her profile grows, there is an emerging sub-plot surrounding her nationality. Born in Sydney, Australia, she moved to Spain at 14 and, a little over a year later, joined her parents in Eastbourne. In 2012, Konta became a tri-citizen: British, Australian, and Hungarian (the nationality of her parents).

The Australian press piled in to ask if, deep down, she still felt like an Aussie. Neighbours or Eastenders? Which Hugh: Jackman or Grant? Canberra or London… okay, perhaps not. In response, Konta decreed that her heart now belonged to the Union Jack.


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It was at this moment that she found her way on to the front page of the Daily Mail – that's when you know you've really made it, Jo – along with the headline, "Hands off our tennis golden girl, Aussies!" and the caption, "Tennis star Johanna Konta is a proud Brit".

This was made problematic by the neighbouring main headline, which read "PM: WHY WE MUST NOT TAKE 3,000 MIGRANT CHILDREN". At this point you had to feel for the poor Mail reader, presented with such conflicting attitudes: Bad Migrant or Good Migrant?

The front page of the Daily Mail, 28 January 2016

Granted, this was David Cameron's stance, not an opinion piece, but then The Mail has never been known as a shining beacon for assimilation – you only have to look at this, or this, or this. Printing a massive headline such as this was hardly meant to encourage its readership to be sympathetic to those children, or indeed to migrants in general.

In fact, Konta's parents fit into a category that papers like The Mail, The Express and The Sun find least desirable: Eastern European immigrants. Geographically, at least. The right-wing tabloid press kindly specify that Romanians and Lithuanians are especially problematic, but Hungarians are not often mentioned. Nevertheless, the last time I checked Hungary was located in Eastern Europe, which surely leaves them on the naughty step.

Stories regarding successful integration are tossed aside for a catchier read suggesting that Eastern Europeans baking swans is a widespread concern for Britain. The gulf between the patriotism felt for Konta – an immigrant – and the antipathy directed towards other immigrants is startling. More than that: it's hypocritical.


Why is Konta an "acceptable" immigrant? Presumably because she's bloody good at tennis. At the end of 2014 she enlisted the aid of mental coach Juan Coto, who has helped her to realise her potential through techniques such as positive visualisation and breathing exercises. That's one of the reasons why the Briton has leapt up the world rankings to 19th at the time of writing.

Konta beat Venus at this year's Australian Open // David Crosling/EPA

She possesses a considered playing that yanks opponents around the court – often leaving them with the expression of someone who is pining for a stiff drink after a long week. Britain hasn't had a female player venture as far as a Grand Slam semi-final since Jo Durie wowed Flushing Meadows in 1983. And 25-year-old Konta still has her best years in front of her.

Naturally, anyone who has been this successful with a British flag next to their name will be lauded by the jingoistic press – regardless of their background. Frankly, they would not have a leg to stand on if they opted to go on a discriminatory rant.

And Konta absolutely should be celebrated as a British athlete. Several top Australian-born female players have chosen to represent European nations in recent years, with many suggesting that this is due to their homeland being an inconvenient location from which to ply your trade. In fact, Konta has mentioned this herself, but she has also built a life in England. She made an active call to appear for Great Britain and, regardless of how important your career goals are, you're not going to fly under the flag of a nation where you think everyone is a prick and feel completely ostracised.


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That desire must have been tested as well. Last year Konta's funding was slashed by the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA), leaving her career "jeopardised". Imagine someone sponsoring your gradually improving work in a new country before pretty much abandoning you and simply assuming you can continue on the breadline.

Konta has enjoyed a meteoric rise since that point, but this is largely through the diligent work that she and her team have put in. She has rightly criticised the LTA, but also hasn't stuck two fingers up in their direction, preferring to point out the key role that the governing body has had in backing her since 2012. The disagreement has by no means deterred her from representing Great Britain. In the build-up to the French Open, the British number one could not contain her excitement at representing Team GB, and in doing so donning one of Stella McCartney's borderline-gaudy tops.

So, we have a British tennis player who's good at playing tennis and is pretty damn keen to do so for Britain. It really is a wonderful prospect. What's less wonderful is the fact that some – including national newspapers – will celebrate the achievements of this immigrant, while simultaneously espousing negative views about others.

They rarely make their way into the right-wing tabloids, but successful instances of immigration certainly don't stop with one professional tennis player. Migrants have contributed significantly to creating a more diverse British society, as well as boosting the economy on a more pragmatic basis. Take Konta's parents: a hotelier and a dentist who count themselves as first-generation Hungarian immigrants. After all, we can't all play at SW19 .