Throughout the 73 minutes that constituted Johanna Konta’s biggest match of her late-flowering career her mother, Gabrielle, paced the grounds of the All-England Club, biting at her nails and taking furtive glances at the big screen. A fulsome Centre Court crowd, along with thousands more scrunched tight on the Hill to watch her semi-final against Venus Williams, knew precisely the anguish she was going through.
They willed the British No1’s piledrivers home, gasping and rasping every time a winner pinged off her racket. But, as Williams’ immense class and experience began fully to emerge, hope gave way to the painful realisation that this would not be Konta’s year. The 6-4, 6-2 score was harsh but no one doubted that the better player had won – and won well.
The 26-year-old Konta had arrived on Centre Court hoping to become the first British woman to win a Wimbledon singles’ semi-final since Virginia Wade toppled Chris Evert in three topsy-turvy sets in 1977. One contemporary match report noted the crowds “murmurs of pleasurable surprise”, yet stressed “they were happy but dared not make it too obvious”. Forty years on the crowd had no such inhibitions. Konta was given a standing ovation as she walked on to court.
What followed was furious and unrelenting. Williams is one of the 90s originators of power tennis; Konta one of her progeny. Few rallies lasted much more than four shots. It was brutal and often astounding.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, Konta was unable to take the thin opportunities that tumbled her way. At 4-4 in the first set, she had two break points which came and went in a flash – as Williams saved the first and then smashed down a 106mph second serve to wriggle out of the next. “It was one of the few opportunities I had and she took that away,” admitted Konta, who rapidly surrendered her concentration, her serve and the first set.
At this stage the Hill – or Kontamanjaro as some wags dubbed it – still believed. Among the fans were three young men sporting home-made T-shirts bearing the slogans “You Konta touch this”, “I Konta believe it” and “You Konta be serious”. But soon the gaps between the shouts grew longer. Reality had started to bite.
Konta had survived several lengthy battles at this Wimbledon, including a three-hour-10-minute epic against Donna Vekic – the longest match in the women’s tournament – but this time she had no answer to the barrage coming from the other side of the net.
It was not that she played badly but Williams’s movement was just sharper, her hitting spikier. Throughout the contest the American’s serve also remained an undecipherable puzzle, with Konta winning only 13 of 50 points on it all match.
As she later conceded: “It was very difficult for me to get a good foothold in the match. It came down on the day, and Venus played better than me. I don’t think I did too much wrong out there. I think it was all credit to her.”
Williams will now face the Spanish player Garbiñe Muguruza, who steamrollered Magdalena Rybarikova 6-1, 6-1 in 64 minutes, in Saturday’s final. If the American were to add to her five Wimbledon titles – the last of which she won in 2008 – she will become the oldest Wimbledon champion since 1908.
Those grand slam winning days had appeared to be long gone when she was diagnosed with Sjogrens syndrome, which causes immense fatigue and leads to swollen joints, in 2011. Yet here she is at 37, having reached the final of the Australian Open in January and now with the rich scent of another title wafting towards her nostrils. “I had a lot of issues and this year has been amazing in terms of my play, so of course I’m excited about being in another final,” she said.
Last week Williams had also broken down at a press conference when asked about being blamed for a car accident in which an elderly passenger in another vehicle was killed. The police’s verdict has since been reversed and Williams carries a lightness that was not evident then.
And with Roger Federer the favourite on the men’s side there is every chance that Wimbledon could see a startling throwback in time to 2005 and 2007, when Federer and Williams – then in the prime of their careers – were crowned the singles’ champions.
Konta insisted afterwards that she could yet join them. She knows there is room for improvement – she barely played a slice, a vicious weapon in the hands of Martina Navratilova and Steffi Graf, or came to the net. But the way she has risen from 147 in the world in June 2015 to a top-five position next week gives plenty of reason for optimism. Wimbledon, as well as Konta’s mum, will hope for many more nailbiting moments in the future.