As Emma Raducanu posts photos of her off-season training block, what has become of the woman she replaced as British No 1? Or, to put it more directly, is Johanna Konta heading for retirement?
It’s not as if Konta has disappeared from view. She will be a panellist on BBC1’s Question of Sport on Friday night, having already served as a pundit for Amazon Prime’s recent coverage of Indian Wells. Her new career as a talking head is developing nicely.
Yet one place where Konta has not been seen is at the National Tennis Centre in south-west London, where she would normally be building up her fitness in preparation for January’s Australian Open. Instead, those around her say that she is preparing for a small wedding ceremony with long-term boyfriend Jackson Wade, probably some time in December.
There are various practical issues working against a trip to Melbourne. Now ranked at No 112, Konta would have to rely on withdrawals from other players to earn direct entry to the Australian Open. She would also have to prove that she has been double-vaccinated against Covid. This seems unlikely, given how sceptical her public pronouncements on vaccination have been to date.
When contacted for comment, Konta’s management said: “Jo is currently working to assess if she’ll be ready to play. With the entry deadline being on the 6th December, she’ll be making a decision soon.” But the widespread assumption inside British tennis is that she will not be travelling to Australia, and has now reached the stage where other priorities – primarily, starting a family – will take precedence.
This leads to another question. If her domestic life becomes the priority, could Konta continue to compete as a mother? The likes of Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka have proved that it can be done, especially now that the Women’s Tennis Association have brought in rules to help returning parents with their rankings. But Konta did not sound enthusiastic on this point when asked about it in December last year.
“I can’t say I ever imagine myself playing on tour as a mother,” she replied then. “I am not closed to the idea. One thing I have worked very hard on during my career is to stay quite open to things around me. But probably I’d see myself retire and then start a family.”
Returning from a baby break would be an arduous business. Even with the WTA’s help, a protected ranking of No 112 is not high enough to gain entry to many elite events, so Konta might have to resort to second-tier ITF tournaments. Another issue is the knee tendinitis that has already dogged her for the last three years, and which she has admitted she may never be able to resolve fully.
On the court, 2021 has been a topsy-turvy year for Konta, who had one spectacular high when she won Nottingham in June – thus becoming the first British woman to lift a WTA title on home soil since Sue Barker in 1981.
At that point, she looked well positioned for a deep run at Wimbledon. But then she contracted Covid, missing both Wimbledon and her longed-for second Olympic campaign in Tokyo. The rest of the year was a virtual washout, with the exception of one fine victory over world No 3 Elina Svitolina in Montreal. Even after that, however, Konta was unable to continue in the tournament, withdrawing from her next match because of a recurrence of the old knee trouble.
She played only once more – a tough three-set loss to Karolina Muchova in Cincinnati on Aug 17 – before pulling out of the US Open with a thigh injury and calling an end to her season. Looking back, one wonders if that first-round meeting in Cincinnati – which was little noticed at the time – could prove to be Konta’s final act as a tennis professional.
A glance at her recent social-media output shows plenty of dog-based content but very little tennis, unless it is to promote a sponsor. A fortnight ago, she posted a teasing question on Instagram: “I wanted to take some time to answer the question on everybody’s mind … Is four dogs too many? Yes. But I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
With time to fill (Konta appeared in only 18 matches this season, and 17 last year) she has taken on various outside interests to engage what is a very active mind. During the summer of 2020, she recorded five episodes of a podcast, including interviews with Sue Barker, surfer Lucy Campbell, Formula One team director Claire Williams and a couple of members of the Harry Potter cast.
Konta and Wade – who formerly worked as a videographer at the Lawn Tennis Association – have established a dog-walking business, while she also occupies an influential role on the Women’s Tennis Association’s player council.
But despite all this activity, there is one missing check-box on Konta’s recent CV: competitive tennis. We are talking here about one of Britain’s finest female players: a woman who peaked at No 4 in the world and reached the semi-finals of three of the four majors, plus the quarter-finals of the US Open. Now she seems to be slipping quietly away from the game.