Johanna Konta exclusive: 'When's the baby coming? No one's asking Rafael Nadal that'
Johanna Konta has not picked up a tennis racket in five months. When she says it out loud, there is a slight note of surprise, like someone only just realising how long it has been since they last saw an old friend.
“Since New York, so that’s September, October, November, December, January …” she says, “Yeah, I suppose it is five months.”
Konta only officially retired on December 1 but her mind, quite clearly, arrived there some time sooner as she describes the process of “detangling” herself from her former life. Such a decisive clean break from playing does not make her sound like someone finding it difficult to adjust to retirement, though.
She has had other things on her mind, to be fair, including a house renovation and looking after her four dogs – Dachshunds Bono and Gizmo and Hungarian Vizslas Paprika and Sydney. Last month, she married long-time partner Jackson Wade – a former videographer at the Lawn Tennis Association – in a low-key ceremony. With depressing predictability, the timing of their nuptials prompted a line of questioning that had Konta groaning.
Konta groans. “As a woman, you start getting to a certain age, hitting certain milestones and then it is straightaway assumed – ‘okay, well, when’s the baby coming?’” she says, flatly.
Taking the decision to retire at the relatively young age of 30, and after indicating in previous interviews she had no intention of playing on tour as a mother, Konta understands there is “no malice” intended in the question. But she does query whether it exposes a double standard. “I don’t think it’s done with any harm, but it would be nice to talk about my career and things like that – like my male counterparts in the sport,” she says.
“I’m not sure they’re asking Rafa Nadal when he was finally going to marry his girlfriend before he did, or when he is going to have kids.”
She says she did not read any of the media tributes that followed her retirement announcement. But if she had, she would have seen mostly glowing reports – and deservedly so. After a slow-burn start to her career, mostly spent grafting on the ITF and Challenger circuits, Konta broke into the top 50 in 2015 and ended up reaching a career-high ranking of world No 4. She won four titles, got to three major semi-finals – including at Wimbledon in 2017 – and held the British top spot for a record five years and 11 months.
The overriding feeling was that she had eked every ounce of potential out of her racket.
But after calling time on her career, as well as feeling sadness to leave a sport she loves, she says she was mostly “happy” she would not be expected to share details of her every move any more. “I was happy once we announced it, because then the questions around when am I playing next or things like that, those weren’t going to be a part of my life any more. It made life a bit simpler, a bit easier.”
Fielding questions about baby plans on the occasion of her retirement was something Konta describes as “unfortunate”, and a subject that needs more sensitivity applied.
“One, it’s a very personal decision and, you know, I think it can be a bit insensitive, especially for people who maybe don’t want to [have children] or have other difficulties,” she says. “You just don’t know. There’s this massive assumption that this is the way it’s done, but since women were unleashed on the workforce the order of things is a bit different, and it’s not as cookie cutter. I think it was unfortunate [that she was asked about it], but I was not alone in that. And while our tennis press is mainly made up of middle-aged men, I think the questions are going to be catered so.”
The media scrutiny that comes with being the country’s biggest hope at the major slams is not something Konta ever warmed to. She was particularly guarded last summer, when she would not disclose whether or not she would be getting the Covid-19 vaccine, despite missing what turned out to be her final chance to play at Wimbledon and the Olympics due to the virus.
She has been covering the Australian Open from Eurosport’s London studios as co-commentator and pundit. Watching the saga play out with Novak Djokovic’s deportation from afar, was she happy not to be involved? “To be honest I wasn’t thinking like that at all,” she says. “Because, for me, the decision to stop playing … that wasn’t a factor for it. It was much more broad, a bigger perspective than that. And if I would be still playing now, I’d be adhering to what I would need to be, to be able to keep playing, travelling and competing. More than anything, it was just a sad situation.”
Konta says she is not opposed to vaccines, but does not share whether she has been jabbed. “It’s not really relevant to me any more,” she says, “because I decided to stop playing and if I would have continued to play then I would be doing what would be necessary for me to be able to compete, travel and do my job.”
Her decision to leave the sport, considering there are players who are now continuing to compete well into their thirties, may seem premature. But Konta says she simply “run out of steam”. Beyond winning in Nottingham, she had a torrid 2021 – falling from 14th in the world to outside the top 100 due to recurring knee tendonitis and bad luck with Covid in the summer. But it was not injury, illness, the idea of starting a family, vaccine mandates or the pandemic which pushed her to retire, she insists. “I wouldn’t say I had it in my mind that I am going to retire [in 2021] – motivation changes, your desires change, priorities change as you get older. It was over a very long time, little choices that led to me taking the final decision.”
Her withdrawal from her US Open first-round match in August, due to a thigh injury, was her final bit of business on tour. It was a sad ending to a memorable career, and the moment she would unwittingly pass on the baton to Emma Raducanu.
While the country was gripped by Raducanu-mania, as she raced through the draw in New York, Konta appeared a little less engaged – tweeting about Grand Designs on the night the quarter-final was played. As she graciously congratulated Raducanu after her triumph, there was a certain symmetry in Konta’s exit turning out to be the site of Raducanu’s breakout moment, which saw her take over as British No 1.
Konta shakes her head. “There was no view of any changing of the guard moment, because Emma’s success was so sudden,” she says, laughing. “It was something that happened very quickly, there wasn’t any sort of build-up to seeing her coming through – she came through and she was there.
“I wouldn’t say that it had any bearing on my decision, just because all those decisions were being made long before she was a presence on the WTA. It didn’t have anything to do with me, really.”
Regardless, a new era is beginning both for Konta and British tennis, and she wants to remain part of the sport. She spent most of her decade at the top of tennis on the WTA Player Council, trying to help create change, and is not writing off a future in the sport – be it in coaching, administration or television work.
“It’s going to be a process over the next period for me to start creating an identity for myself outside of being a tennis player,” she says. “I see myself staying a part of the sport – because I love the sport. I didn’t stop playing because I didn’t love it any more, I’m so grateful for the sport, I would love to be involved. It will become a bit more clear to me as I go – this is uncharted territory.”
There is no rush to book herself a slot at her local tennis court, either. “I’ve got nothing in, no,” she laughs, “but I’m sure the next time I step on court I’ll document it.”