It’s a muggy afternoon in south-west London and Johanna Konta is feeling the heat. The tennis ace, women’s world number 30 and British No1 is just days away from Wimbledon’s big post-pandemic comeback and having just won her first title in four years, all eyes are on Britain’s golden girl to bring the trophy home.
Konta insists she doesn’t feel the pressure like she used to. She’s just got engaged to her partner of four years and is more relaxed in press situations, after a history of being more guarded and getting flustered or angry in press conferences. At the last Wimbledon Championships two years ago, she accused a journalist of being “disrespectful, patronising and picking on her” after her straight-sets loss in the quarter-finals - a subject that is on her mind this week after fellow player Naomi Osaka’s decision to skip press conferences to protect her mental health.
“I agree with a lot of what [Naomi] says,” Konta tells me from her home in south-west London, with her fiancée, Jackson Wade sitting quietly at her side. She is keen to stress the complexity of the debate. She respects Osaka’s decision to be “true to herself” and says it’s for each player to make a choice “according to their own circumstances”. But she also recognises their responsibilities as players. “We have to perform duties as professional athletes... and part of the agreement is to have that dialogue with the media. Not that that doesn’t mean that everyone can’t do their job a little bit better, do their job with a little more compassion and a little more understanding — which ultimately will always result in a better interview. I think there’s massive, massive room for improvement and growth, probably, on both sides.”
Today, Konta sounds confident and relaxed, a nod to what she calls a decision to “take a step back and enjoy what I do” over the last few years. She met Wade, a softly spoken photographer and creative consultancy co-founder from County Durham, in 2017 and lights up whenever he comes into conversation, recounting the moment he proposed on her 30th birthday after presenting her with a scrapbook of their relationship. She says they “laugh a lot together” and were happy together in lockdown as they are natural “hermits” and had their two daschunds, Bono and Gizmo. They would like to have children and Konta has said that will “obviously” be a considering factor in how long she plays professional tennis, but she can’t see herself stopping in the next couple of years.
Konta is asked about this regularly and says she believes female players are treated differently by the Press, noting a difference in language between headlines about male and female players when they lose matches. “I don’t necessarily think that is done through malice or ill intent,” she says. “I think it’s out of habit and just lack of clarity and attention on how it looks and what it means. Again, I think that just falls into the realm of areas of growth.”
Konta was born in Sydney to Hungarian parents, but they moved to the UK when she was 14, settling in Eastbourne (“most sportsmen and women talk about their parents giving up Saturdays to drive them to coaching. Mine moved continents,” Konta has said, praising their dedication). She was due to return to her hometown this week as part of the Eastbourne International but pulled out last-minute because of a troublesome right knee, which she has been struggling with since 2019.
Instead, she has chosen to focus her attention on preparing for Wimbledon. Britain’s most prestigious tennis tournament finally returns to the All England Club next week after a hiatus last year — crowds are limited to 50 per cent capacity and social distancing will be in place, except for the finals — and Konta certainly hasn’t given up hope of being her nation’s star. Earlier this month, she won her fourth Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) title at the Viking Class tournament in Nottingham — her first since the Miami Open in 2017 and, crucially for Wimbledon, her first grass court title.
“I feel very proud and lucky — especially to win the title at home, on grass, in front of a home crowd,” she tells me humbly, adding that it’s “actually really hard” to win a title. “When you start a tournament, the odds of winning are in no one’s favour.”
Konta’s Nottingham victory also makes her the first British woman to win a WTA tournament on home soil since Sue Barker in 1981. She admits she doesn’t fan-girl often but Barker is one idol she will make an exception for. She interviewed the Grand Slam champion and broadcasting veteran for her podcast, The Johanna Konta podcast, last summer and says Barker was an “absolute pro”. “She made me feel so good about myself and my abilities, which was completely not reflective of what was happening,” she laughs, remembering her nerves at the time.
Other interviewees on the podcast included Formula One veteran Claire Williams and Harry Potter actors James and Oliver Phelps, who play the Weasley twins, whom she met at the Pride of Britain Awards several years ago. But the podcast wrapped up in May after five episodes as Konta and her fellow players were allowed to return to socially-distanced training at the National Tennis Centre (NTC) in Roehampton.
For now, she’s just happy to be returning to SW19. At the start of the first lockdown, she and her fellow players weren’t allowed to hit a ball for nine weeks so she had to turn her living room into a makeshift gym. Training has since returned to a “new normal”, but quarantining for the Australian Open in January was a challenge. Konta adds that she was one of the lucky ones. Unlike Heather Watson who filmed herself having to run 5km in her hotel room following a positive Covid test, Konta was allowed access to tennis courts and a gym, and was able to visit her sister and nephews in Sydney after the tournament.
Konta still has three passports — British, Australian and Hungarian — and despite her international upbringing (she spent over a year at the Sanchez Casal tennis academy in Barcelona), London is now home. She mentions that she and Wade chose their engagement ring designer thanks to an Evening Standard article (Taylor and Hart, for anyone wondering) and they like to eat at restaurants regularly, their favourite being Japanese dining concept Inko Nito in Soho. Aside from the eating out, she and Wade didn’t find lockdown as challenging as some because they like to stay in, admits Konta. They binged every episode of Friends, played Lego Harry Potter games and bought a new puppy, Gizmo, a regular feature on Konta’s Instagram in their local stomping ground, Battersea Park.
They also bought a caravan in the hope of going away with the dogs this summer, depending on whether she qualifies for the Olympics in Tokyo and whether they even go ahead.
What does she think about large sports events like Wimbledon and the Euros being permitted while cultural ones like theatre and festivals are not? Konta says it’s down to governments and science, but she misses live music (she named her dog Bono after the U2 frontman and her dream is to see Celine Dion perform live — she once had tickets, she confesses, but was too tired to go).
As for the Olympics, representing Great Britain at Rio in 2016 remains “the highlight” of her career, so she is heartbroken for those for whom Tokyo might be their only or last shot at a gold medal. Not that it’s the tennis players she feels sorry for. “We are very, very far down the pecking order when it comes to the Olympics, and I think rightly so just because of the amount of other opportunities we have in our sport,” she adds, quickly. Thankfully, they still have Wimbledon. Even with half the crowds to cheer her on, that’s a pretty big trophy to be setting her sights on for now.