Flying from London to Chicago and renting a car to use for the remainder of her tournament travels in the U.S., Johanna Konta begins her WTA return at the inaugural Top Seed Open on Monday in Lexington, K.Y. We caught up with the three-time major semifinalist on Zoom, ahead of her opener against Marie Bouzkova—the woman who beat Konta in her final match before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the WTA tour to suspend its calendar in early March.
What’s the best thing you baked or cooked up during the shutdown?
I’m basically designated chef at home. I actually enjoy cooking and my boyfriend doesn’t. He kind of cooks out of necessity, so I was mainly cooking for the last five months. I made a few lemon sponges, although one of them did not rise, for who knows why. Made some chocolate chip banana bread, some muffins. I didn’t make anything crazy, to be fair.
To that, baking entails following a process. When tennis players compete each week, there’s a routine, and you know you have to be quick with any adjustments during matches. During this forced time away from tour, what did you learn about yourself in navigating a life event no one has the perfect recipe for?
As tennis player and I guess any athlete, I always think there’s some anxiety of what will life be like once you stop playing. Will I be able to function? Will I really struggle being at home? I think if nothing else, this period’s shown me I’m going to be OK when the time comes [to] stop playing.
I really enjoyed being at home and didn’t crave going away. I missed playing. I think the period where we were completely locked down for about nine weeks, I couldn’t hit at all and I had to train in my living room—that period was very trying to find the motivation to train. After lockdown started to ease for us, our tennis center opened again, our gym at the tennis center, then things became a lot easier once I had more of a normal routine in terms of training, at least.
This period definitely taught me my ability to be present and to enjoy the things I have in my life. It definitely brought that to the forefront, gratefulness for what I have. And I think also just brought trust in myself and being able to land on my feet regardless of circumstances.
Lately I’ve been making the most of my time at home and spending a lot of it cooking (and eating ????) ???? - As some of you may know, I absolutely love food and I’ve been working on some really exciting foodie projects - including making use of @wimbledon ‘s famous strawberries and spending time with some amazing chefs! ???? - Really looking forward to sharing this with you! #KontasKitchen ????????
What are you feeling as you get set for your first tour-level event in more than five months with a set of unusual circumstances around you?
I think generally, just excitement. I’m happy to be here. I’ve continued that habit of staying very present. This is going to be quite a long trip, depending on how the US Open goes, without a lot to do. I think staying present will definitely help with that.
Overall, I feel very grateful for being here, to be able to be on a match court at a venue preparing to play a tournament. The venue itself is actually very nice; it’s super simple and it kind of reminds me of when I used to play the U.S. Challengers here. It’s got everything we need: the courts are really good, there’s plenty of space. Everyone is really doing their best to make this an enjoyable and safe environment.
You’ve said numerous times you like being challenged. How much are you looking forward to the pressure that comes with competing on the WTA tour, where there are matches with stakes and an end goal in mind?
I think more than anything, taking it in my stride. This environment is not a new environment for me. It’s where I’ve spent the better of 20 years in. I’ve spent more time on a match court than probably doing anything else in my life. I’m well versed in the stresses and the anxieties that come up. Obviously they continuously evolve and change, and no match is the same. However, I’d like to think with each year that passes and me playing as a professional tennis player still, I get to feed off that bank of experience that I’m accumulating in this period.
I’m looking forward to being in that situation, where those questions are being asked of me, to have a good perspective and look to problem solve. Enjoy that feeling of having that kind of stress in the body. That’s adrenaline, it’s the thing probably all professional athletes really struggle with when they’re retired, when they’re injured, when they can’t play. That’s something you can’t replicate unless you start skydiving every second day. I’m just looking forward to having the chance to have that again.
Lastly, back in 2012, you arrived in Lexington a few weeks after a heartbreaking loss at Wimbledon. You went on to reach the final at the $50k event here, and then scored your first Grand Slam match win at the US Open. What, on the court or off it, do you remember about your first trip to Lexington?
I played the majority of my Challenger years and tournaments in the U.S. I played a lot on the USTA Pro Circuit, so I am very well versed in the different events here. And you know what, I absolutely love them. Just how hospitable everyone always was. I remember I used to stay at so many host families. Honestly, the people are incredible here when it comes to sport and the way they embrace athletes and their desire to do well.
I remember being in Lexington, it was frickin' hot. I remember that! It was mega hot. I think we played at the University of Kentucky. When I was coming here, I was wondering what the venue was, if it was going to be the same venue and then we realized it wasn’t. I’m excited to be here. It definitely brings back memories.