Johanna Konta: ‘Every day is a chance to win’

With Wimbledon beginning tomorrow, British number one JOHANNA KONTA has the nation’s hopes on her shoulders – and is relishing the challenge

Turning 30 for most of us marks the start of a decade where career security finally becomes a reality.

Johanna wears jumper and skirt, Michael Kors Collection. Shoes, Tod’s. Photograph: Helen McArdle. Picture Director: Ester Malloy. Styling: Sasha Barrie. Styling Assistant: Elizabeth Beh. Make-Up: Liz Martins.

But for professional tennis players the opposite is often true. The decade is the one where you’re usually forced to retire, and life as you know it changes entirely. You leave a job you love, the income you’ve depended upon and the chance to compete for your country at a professional level.

So when British female number one Johanna Konta reached the milestone in May, you’d have forgiven her for being a little depressed about the passing of the years. Luckily, her long-term boyfriend Jackson Wade had other ideas.

‘He proposed on my birthday!’ she says, with a huge grin. ‘I could see him getting nervous before he asked. We’re very happy. He’s my best friend.’

That’s one way to take your mind off the start of a decade of potentially enormous change. It is, though, indicative of Johanna’s mental strength that the idea of one day moving on from playing a sport she loves isn’t so much daunting as inevitable. Even though that sport has dictated her every waking moment for years.

‘I haven’t given myself a deadline to retire so I’m welcoming this next decade with open arms. At the ripe old age of 30, I still choose to play tennis and I see myself playing for as long as I can. I think I’ll know when I’m ready to do something different – maybe in TV or radio. There’s going to be a lot more of my life, knock on wood, after tennis and although I haven’t got anything set in stone, I’m looking forward to it, because there will be new things to try.’

Johanna in action at Wimbledon, 2019. Photograph: Getty Images

For now competing is still Johanna’s passion and number-one priority. Wimbledon (which starts tomorrow) will see her striding out in front of the world’s cameras in an outfit inspired by one of her heroes – Chris Evert’s 1981 Ellesse ensemble – with the hope it will bring her as much success as her idol had. Johanna has fond memories of Wimbledon after reaching the semifinals in 2017 – the same year she achieved her highest ever world ranking of number 4 (she’s now 20). She also reached the quarter finals for team GB in the 2016 Rio Olympics.

There is also the small matter of being British number one. It’s a tough gig. For decades, tennis fans got so used to Britain being not very good at the sport that, on the rare occasions when someone rose through the rankings, those players came under immense pressure. They carry our collective hopes in return for the possibility of glory and a small lump of Wimbledon grass being named after them – a Murray Mound or a Henman Hill. For some, that kind of scrutiny can be unbearable – a week after YOU’s interview took place, the Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka withdrew from the French Open due to mental health reasons. For Johanna, it is a conscious effort to avoid a similar situation.

‘I try not to use unnecessary energy on things that I can’t control. The good thing about tennis is everything’s up for grabs every day. Even if you’ve lost every single time to the person you’re about to play, when you step out on to the court, it’s another chance to win that day. It’s like chess. You keep trying to find a way to play your opponent better, play them smarter.’

Playing at all, let alone competitively, is going to be a huge relief for Johanna after Covid stopped everything for most of last year. ‘I couldn’t play or train on a court,’ she says. ‘We live in a two-bed flat in London, with a small balcony – I was sent some equipment from the gym to train with and the living-room-slash-dining-room became both our home gym and our home office. It was difficult for me and Jackson to be eating, sleeping and training in the same square metre. I don’t think I had ever been at home for five months straight before.’

With her now fiancé Jackson Wade in 2018. Photograph: Getty Images.

When they weren’t working, or working out, the couple took their hour’s outdoor exercise walking around the local area – often with their two dachshunds, Bono and Gizmo, in tow. While she might get the occasional selfie-hunter coming to say hello, Johanna’s is the sort of celebrity where a walk in the park rarely attracts attention. ‘If I went around with a tennis racket in my hand or wearing whites, I think I’d get recognised,’ she says. ‘It happens more during the summer months when tennis is at the forefront of our minds, but I don’t get mobbed by any stretch. Until maybe six years ago, no one really knew me, so it’s been a gradual awareness of who I am.’

Johanna arrived in Britain aged 14, from Sydney, Australia, where she’d grown up with her Hungarian parents. She’d been training in Barcelona, where her parents were due to move to be with her, until the senior Kontas stopped off in Britain, en route, and those plans changed. ‘One year turned into five, then ten. Now we’re going on to 17,’ she says.

Johanna became a British citizen in 2012. ‘I’ve spent more of my life here than I have in Australia, so for me this is home, but I’m very aware of the different parts of me. My parents emigrated to Australia from Hungary when the country was behind the Iron Curtain. I’m proud of my Hungarian heritage, but also of having been born in a beautiful nation like Australia, and best of all representing Great Britain. It’s a massive privilege and I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity.’

The fact her parents were prepared to move halfway across the world to support Johanna’s blossoming career – with no guarantee it would work out – was something she was very conscious of as a teenager. ‘You’re very aware of the family sacrifice that is happening around you,’ she says of the pressures of being a child prodigy. But it is also perhaps part of the reason she is so dedicated to her sport. ‘You understand that there are going to be different stresses within the family dynamic. It tested us, but it also made us stronger.’

The outfit inspired by Chris Evert. Photograph: Ellesse.

It was her parents who encouraged her to play tennis, signing her up to an after-school club. ‘Both of them worked full time,’ she says, ‘and they needed me to be looked after for a few hours until they could come and get me. So they signed me up for tennis lessons and I fell in love with the sport. But that club could easily have been athletics or netball, it was just lucky it was tennis. As long as I was active, my parents were happy.’

She’s keen to become a parent herself, almost certainly after she retires, given that the pressures of the tennis season last for 11 months of the year. ‘I would love to have children,’ she says. ‘I also want more dogs. I’d like to garden, bake and cook more. I love fresh air and space, and that doesn’t always coincide with London life. One day I’ll move out and have chickens laying fresh eggs every day.’

That day, thankfully, still feels a long way off, and for now the centre court of SW19 beckons – and with it the hopes of a nation. While the strawberries and cream remain uneaten, and the fizz remains unpopped, we can all dream that Konta Korner will soon become a reality.

Johanna is an Ellesse athlete. For more information see or @ellesse on Instagram

Interview by Francesca Babb.