Ana Konjuh may have been sidelined for most of the past three years, but she has no plans to move on.

"I don't have a Plan B," said former World No.20 Konjuh, who has been given a wildcard for this week's Miami Open. "A lot of people have asked, especially after quarantine. Actually, no. I don't want to concern myself with what I'm going to do afterwards. When the time comes, I'm sure I'll find something I'm good at. But until then, I want my focus to be 100% on tennis. That's all that makes me happy right now."

It's a determined outlook for the Croat, who at the age of 23 has already undergone four surgeries on her right elbow, the most recent an ulnar ligament reconstruction. Only 80 per cent of athletes made successful returns from it, she was told.

"It's a huge surgery for a tennis player - mainly it's for baseball players," said Konjuh. "The doctor said it was my last option. I decided in five minutes. I said, let's do it, let's go for it. He had a timeslot the next day for the surgery, which lasted two-and-a-half hours."

It was the culmination of a decade in which pain had lurked in the shadows of Konjuh's prodigious success. At 15 years old, she won the 2013 Australian and US Open junior titles; a week after turning 16, in her WTA main draw debut, she upset World No.14 Roberta Vinci in the first round of Auckland 2014. She became the youngest WTA titlist in nine years when she captured the 2015 Nottingham title at the age of 17, and a year later upset Agnieszka Radwanska to make her Grand Slam quarterfinal debut at the 2016 US Open. 

But she now admits that she had played while hurt throughout her junior career.

"I'd been playing for four years with the pain because nobody actually told me there's a reason, you should go for surgery," Konjuh said. "I could handle the pain, and I could play with it. I probably would have had surgery earlier if I knew what was wrong at the time."

In the event, Konjuh eventually had her first elbow surgery in early 2014 - an operation which seemed to clear up the problem. But in 2017, she woke up in Toronto unable to extend her arm. A second surgery to shave the bone down followed, but the "fresh start" Konjuh anticipated in 2018 did not.

Instead, there was more frustration. Konjuh was only able to play four tournaments that year, and though minor surgery ruled out the most alarming possibilities, there was no concrete diagnosis of her problems. And after six months of rest, her pain returned and the comeback came to a halt after just three tournaments in early 2019.

"I was disappointed over and over again," Konjuh said. "You think you've done everything that it takes to be healthy, but your body says, 'No, no, no.'"

Following the reconstruction, Konjuh needed to do seven hours of physio work each day "just to brush my teeth". Now, stretching and needling are part of her routine before and after playing.

"My elbow is never going to be normal," she said. "I had to accept that. I had to face my new reality."

"My elbow is never going to be normal. I had to face my new reality."

- Ana Konjuh on the extent of her injuries.

Konjuh credits physiotherapist Meri Tranfic as a key support in this process.

"We've grown really close over the years," she says. "I started working with her when I had back issues in 2015 or 2016, before the elbow stuff even started. We really clicked. She knows my body so well - I don't even have to say anything and she knows what's wrong and how to fix it. I think that is the most important, because to describe the pain is quite difficult sometimes. But she gets it. She's been there at every surgery, and she's been my support not just as a physio, but as a therapist and as a friend."

2013 Australian Open girls' doubles champions Carol Zhao and Ana Konjuh with runners-up Oleksandra Korashvili and Barbora Krejcikova.

Tour colleagues such as Kristina Mladenovic and Carol Zhao, with whom she won the 2013 Australian Open girls' doubles title, were also there to support her. "[Carol] has had elbow issues too, so it was great reminiscing with friends," Konjuh said. "I also talked to some [ATP] guys who'd been through surgeries, like Elias Ymer - just sharing our experiences with each other has helped us."

Gallery: The Class of 1997's Tour takeover

But there's a special place in Konjuh's heart for her 'Class of 1997' peers - the outstanding generation of teenage prodigies turned top pros comprising herself, Belinda Bencic, Naomi Osaka, Jelena Ostapenko and Daria Kasatkina. While she found it tough to watch them go on to achieve elite success, the bond she had built up with players in her junior days remained.

"We grew up together at junior tournaments. We motivated each other to be even better among ourselves, but we also stayed really close with each other."

- Ana Konjuh on her bond with fellow Class of 1997 members Belinda Bencic and Daria Kasatkina.

"I wouldn't say I was jealous of them," she muses. "First of all, I'm really proud our whole generation made it. But when I was recovering it was hard to watch tennis - I was happy for them but at the same time I was wishing I could have that chance to compete. 

"But to be opponents on the court but friends off the court I think is really important. We grew up together at junior tournaments, after all. We motivated each other to be even better among ourselves, but we also stayed really close with each other, especially Kasatkina and Bencic."

Ana Konjuh en route to qualifying for Dubai 2021.

DDF Tennis

Konjuh still believes that she has the potential to match her former teenage peers' accomplishments. Last September, she won the first tournament she had played in 19 months, an ITF W25 at home in Zagreb; this year, she has delivered tentatively optimistic results, reaching the final round of Australian Open qualifying in January and qualifying for Dubai this month. Most importantly, her pain has not returned. Now ranked World No.338, Konjuh is targeting a Top 100 finish this year.

While sidelined, Konjuh drew inspiration from Andy Murray's Resurfacing documentary, in which the former ATP World No.1 takes viewers through multiple hip surgeries. "It actually made me cry - I felt the same as he did in some moments," she says. She also kept going back to a central question: Why was she playing tennis in the first place?

"It's because I wanted to do this for as long as I can," Konjuh said. "I'm a tennis player through and through. I gave my whole life to this. There was not a doubt in my mind that if I just stopped, I would always wonder, 'What if?' I want to finish my career on my own terms."