Tuesday afternoon and the rain was falling on Wimbledon as if the gods were crying over the absence of a British woman in the Wimbledon semi-finals since 1978. But then, under the roof, Eastbourne-by-way-of-Sydney’s own Johanna Konta strode out to face down Simona Halep on Centre Court for that very opportunity.
Sadly, at first, it looked like many had missed the memo. The party was not exactly popping as Konta and the No2 seed took the stage, with empty seats around Centre Court and especially in the royal box, where the numbers were comparable to those at a meeting of the Ilie Nastase supporters’ club.
Those who were in attendance were hushed, almost as if they were still trying to work out what they make of this naturalised Brit whose rise up the rankings has largely come on foreign soil. None of that is Konta’s fault and the sense the No6 seed does not care much about it is not something to hold against her either.
It may be no one’s fault but it felt the crowd were looking for something to rally behind and they soon got it. Rallies, that is. For the duration of the match Konta and Halep went at it with such power it looked like they were trying to find the Higgs boson particle by hand. The ball would fly in one direction at an incredible velocity and then back in the other even faster. The balls took such a beating they were retired at the end of the match and now live in a sanctuary in Devon.
After Halep broke in the second game of the first set there was even more of a need for something to cheer for. It arrived in the fourth game when Konta opened up and went 15-40 up with a crashing forehand down the line. A roar came from the crowd. This was not just an enthusiastic roar, it was furious, a roar that, were you to play a recording of it to a regular attendee at Rome’s Colosseum circa 100AD they would have gone: “Yep, I recognise that.”
Konta went on to lose the following three points as Halep held her serve and her advantage but from that moment on each time she managed to pull that big shot from her right side the crowd were fully, lustily behind her. Her break back, when it came, was a demolition and the cheer that accompanied it would have taken off the roof had it not been designed to remain in place by the international architecture firm Populous.
Unfortunately for all concerned the roaring was in vain as Konta lost the set in the tie-break, with Halep taking four consecutive points. And for the second set, the roar was largely noticeable by its absence. With the score at 5-4 and Konta shedding three break-points during what had become an increasing tide of unforced errors, there was a discernible “Come on, Jo!” This, the plaintive “come on”, is familiar to tennis fans. It is the kind they made their own during the Tim Henman years, it’s a plea to players you think could lose.
Konta, for all her poor hitting, showed no slackening in her determination to win. She missed the break but went on to win the second tie-break with a fantastic, fearsome backhand into the corner. The roar was back and bigger than ever.
By the time the match moved into the third set there was not a spare seat in the house and roars were regularly bouncing off the turbid panels of the portable ceiling.
There were even people standing on their feet, pumping their fists like they were watching a boxing match or a particularly torrid episode of Love Island. The message seemed clear. They had found something to cling on to with Konta; she was a fighter, a scrapper, a will-to-power player.
You would say Konta responded to this support if it was not perfectly clear she would have ploughed on regardless. Konta made 34 unforced errors in the match compared to Halep’s nine but she also hit 48 winners to the Romanian’s 26.
At match point the British No1 and inheritor of Virginia Wade’s historic mantle was nearly put off her winning stroke by a woman screaming in the stands but she was not to be distracted that easily.