The relationship between player and crowd at Wimbledon tends to be pegged out around great matches, an accumulated muscle memory of successive oddly intimate moments of extreme competition down the years. Johanna Konta’s gripping quarter-final defeat of Simona Halep looks like being the latest example of this process in action.
Both women played to the outer reaches of their capacity over three high-grade sets. Centre Court quivered and moaned in the way no other sporting crowd ever really quivers and moans. In victory Konta threw another grappling hook across the divide from late-blooming high-class hopeful to slams contender. Plus she added another layer to her own note of fond, purring rapport with a home crowd that for all its squealing gaucheness does tend to remember.
It will have been a satisfying win for Konta for other reasons, too. So often dismissed as a little flaky, prone to blow-ups and breakdowns, victory gave further proof of her maturity as a competitor, of the added resilience that has coincided with a shake-up of her coaching influences in the past three years. Win or lose from here a semi-final against Venus Williams on Thursday afternoon is already a quietly inspiring tale of a fine mid-twenties talent beginning to hit the groove.
Albeit, on the other hand, we could of course just talk about how British she is. Given the flag-waving pageantry of Wimbledon it was inevitable Konta would be hailed, first and foremost as the first British woman to reach the semi-final here in 39 years. Inevitably there have also been the usual mutterings over a childhood spent in Australia, passports of convenience and all the rest.
It is to be hoped this kind of talk will continue to fade. For one thing Konta’s story has far more interesting notes than accents and flags. The past two years have seen a surge through the rankings from 146th to world No7. Konta has achieved something unusual, making the jump from just another talented satellite player to major force, an arc that may still have some distance left to run. In April she won the Miami Open, with prize money just shy of a £1m, four months after the sudden death of her mentor Juan Coto, credited with the stiffening of the mental sinews since their first session in 2014.
All of which stands without the usual awkward formal dance over exactly how much and to what degree Konta can be said to be One Of Us. There are plenty of logical, entirely non-jingoistic reasons for analysing national performance and for keeping the boundaries discrete. At its best international sport provides the most fascinating contrasts, a test of system versus system, an empirical gauge of which methods produce and nurture the most successful players.
There is a problem here with the LTA, an unimpressive governing body, drowning in cash but apparently unable to dredge anything of substance out of those desiccated grassroots, to produce a home-reared, home-coached player of real standing.
For all that this is a debate that should be left to circulate outside Konta’s late-flowering success, a Wimbledon semi-finalist who is at least as British as Eric Dier, or Keaton Jennings, or the much-beloved Gladstone Small, who moved to England at the same age. In reality sporting nationality has little to do with passports and parentage and everything to do with formative sporting years, tied to wherever an athlete’s greatest period of development arrived. It is an argument that makes Konta almost entirely British, Kevin Pietersen an English batsman and South African off-spinner and Cesc Fàbregas a Premier League Londoner.
Hopefully attention will focus elsewhere in the last knockings of this Wimbledon. As Konta prepares for her semi-final against Williams it is a shared unorthodoxy in both women’s path to this point that stands out rather than questions of nationality. Nothing in sport quite compares to the success of the Williams sisters, champion outsiders whose path to the top has been forged by nothing more than their own talent and tenacity. At 37 Williams is more than a decade older then Konta and an all-time hall of famer.
If there is a similarity it is in the freelance, self-propelling nature of both players’ backgrounds, further evidence perhaps that national identity in individual sports is a complex, diffuse, increasingly fugged and complex notion. For now Konta will fancy her chances. She has an encouraging 3-2 win record against Williams.
She was brilliantly assertive in that quarter-final win against Halep, hitting with power off both wings, serving with precision, and playing with sustained aggression. Victory would set the scene for an unusually fevered weekend and another note in what already looks like becoming another beautiful SW19 friendship.