“I’ve never felt like I’ve had to carry a nation’s hopes on my shoulders,” says Johanna Konta, of going into this year’s Wimbledon tournament as Britain’s top seed. “I’ve always said I play because I love to play, and to entertain people. I look on it as more of an honour. I feel very privileged to be able to play on these big stages, at the top of the game.
“Wimbledon is kind of the jewel in the crown,” adds the 30-year-old, who’s talking to Weekend over Zoom from her home in London (with occasional cameos from Bono, one of her two miniature Dachshunds). “It’s very different to the other [grand] slams. It’s stayed very traditional: the pristine grass, the players wearing the all-white…. It’s just very classy. I can safely say it’s my favourite tournament.”
As a British player, she’d have to say that, surely? “That’s the thing, you don’t have to say that,” insists Johanna. “But I love the surface. And nothing beats playing in front of a home crowd, in any sport, so we’re lucky that, in tennis, one of the biggest stages is here at Wimbledon.”
Of course, SW19 was the setting for one of Johanna’s career highlights when, in 2017, she became the first British woman to reach a Wimbledon semi-final since Virginia Wade 39 years earlier. “That was incredible,” she recalls. “We played under the roof, and the acoustics on Centre Court were something very special. And the stadium was full, I think. It was a wonderful moment to be part of.”
Having struggled with some recent fitness issues, including heart palpitations and a niggling knee injury (not to mention the interruption to her training schedule caused by Covid) the world number 30 says she’s feeling good, and “getting back into the groove of things” – a point proved when she won her first title for four years at the Nottingham Open earlier this month.
For all her breezy talk of playing for the love of the game, though, Johanna – who’s also reached the semi-finals of the Australian and French Opens, in addition to three WTA singles titles – isn’t immune to the pressures it brings. At a testy press conference following her quarter-final defeat at Wimbledon two years ago, she hit back at a journalist who asked if she “could have done better”, saying she felt “patronised” and “picked on”. It’s an exchange that’s been cast in a fresh light by Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal from the French Open earlier this month, having stated she would no longer be speaking to the media in order to protect her mental health.
This job does feel like going to the office in front of millions of people. There’s always someone looking over your shoulder going, ‘I’m not sure you’re doing that well…’Johanna Konta
“I am grateful for the global coverage that tennis gets,” says Johanna, talking to Weekend before the Osaka row blew up. “But this job does feel a bit like going into the office in front of millions of people. There’s always someone looking over your shoulder going. ‘Is that good? I’m not sure you’re doing that well today…’ That’s the nature of the beast, and you do become accustomed to it as you make your way through your career. But it’s a challenging environment, that’s for sure. In elite sports, you get exposed to very high pressure situations, and your tolerance for stress and your tolerance for being uncomfortable is constantly being tested.”
Does that help her build resilience off the court, too? “There’s definitely a massive crossover in sport and normal life,” she agrees. “Maybe, for me now, fear is not as much of a scary thing.”
Later this summer (Covid permitting), Johanna will be heading out to the Tokyo Olympics as a member of Team GB. She’s the first to admit that, five years ago, she flew down to Rio (where she reached the quarter-finals) feeling a bit tired and grumpy, wondering why, with no prize money or points on offer, she was even bothering. But that soon changed. “It was such a transformation – I became the biggest Team GB groupie you’ve ever seen,” she grins. “I felt so proud. I literally spent two weeks just being so proud to be part of that team. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career so far.”
Born in Sydney, Australia, to Hungarian parents, Johanna came to the UK when she was 14, swapping Bondi Beach for the sands of Eastbourne so she could further her already burgeoning tennis career on the European circuit. Despite being something of an accidental Brit (the original plan had been to move to Spain), Johanna says she “felt at home straight away. And that hasn’t changed. I’ve now been here longer than I was in Australia.”
She cites her parents, Gábor and Gabriella, a hotel manager and dentist, among her greatest inspirations. “They’re very resilient, very hard-working, very aspirational people. They always wanted me to have more in my life than they had in theirs. I definitely inherited my ambition, and my perseverance, from them.”
In recent weeks, Johanna has celebrated two big life events: she turned 30 on May 17, and has just got engaged to her long-time boyfriend, film producer Jackson Wade. Both things have conspired to focus her mind on the future. “Life keeps moving, and I’m very aware I won’t be able to do this forever,” she says. “There’s a life for me once my playing career comes to an end. I definitely want to be a part of this sport, maybe something in TV or radio. And I’d love to have children. I think it’s important, as a female athlete, to bring that conversation to light, and talk about it in a really normal way, because it is part of the consideration.
“The last time I spoke openly about my desire to have a family, the headline was that I’m retiring,” she sighs. “And I never said that. There’s definitely no roadmap on this. It’s just about addressing the fact that, as a woman, you have a certain window when you can have children, and I think it should be okay to talk about that.”
In the meantime, she’s still got her eyes on the prize of a grand slam or two – or perhaps an Olympic gold for her beloved Team GB. “I guess some people are British by chance, and I’m British by choice,” she says. “And I feel very proud of that. That was probably a big part of my Olympic experience – the pride that I have to be able to call this nation home.”
Follow Joanna on Instagram and Twitter – @johannakonta
Off-court, Johanna is a dedicated foodie, who regularly serves up recipes – sometimes joined by top chefs – on her Konta’s Kitchen Instagram and YouTube channels. “I’ve got two big folders of recipes ripped out of the Waitrose magazine,” she grins. “And I love British food – I love my Sunday roast, I love my English breakfast. Gastronomically, I fit in very well. And my partner’s from the north-east, so whenever I make a roast, it’s not so much meat and veg with gravy, it’s more gravy with with some meat and veg. It’s a soup, essentially.”
Last year, she appeared on Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer (“the Wimbledon Centre Court of baking”), where she received more points for taste than presentation. “I’d say it showcased my… sub-par artistic skills,” she laughs. “I’ve never considered myself a hidden Picasso. I forgive myself for my really ugly cake.”
Are cakes and elite athletics compatible? “I grew up in a household where the mantra was ‘everything’s okay in moderation’, and that’s helped me develop a really healthy relationship with food,” says Johanna. “Obviously I’m not going to be eating cake for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But eating is a joy, it’s a major part of living, and it’s not always just what’s good for my sport – sometimes it’s what’s good for my soul, for my mind, and for my heart.”
This interview appeared in the issue of Waitrose Weekend published June 24, 2021 (c) Waitrose Weekend