Aidan Smith: Johanna Konta rekindles memories of the 1970s

Johanna Konta in action during her quarter-final win over Simona Halep of Romania at Wimbledon. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Johanna Konta in action during her quarter-final win over Simona Halep of Romania at Wimbledon. Picture: Michael Steele/Getty Images
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It was all about the 1970s for Johanna Konta, despite her emergence into the world coming 22 years after the decade ended and her not picking up a racket for eight after that. She was already part of Britain’s best Wimbledon since 1973 when she stepped onto Centre Court. Could she become our first women’s semi-finalist since 1978?

With Virginia Wade’s praise ringing in her ears and Ann Jones running to her seat in the front row of the Royal Box, the grande dames of British tennis expected, along with the nation. This was unchartered territory for Konta and for a generation of tennis fans. Pressure? Well, Romania’s Simona Halep broke her serve right away.

But, at the end of two hours and 38 minutes, the British No 1 had won an electric encounter 6-7 (2-7), 7-6 (7-5), 6-4. Warned not to yelp and squeak during rallies, the crowd simply couldn’t keep quiet on match point. Halep banged the ball into the net and threw an angry look at the umpire. He made an apologetic gesture as if to say: “It’s the British, they haven’t had a woman do this well since Space Invaders and the first test-tube baby.”

Konta and Halep, the world No 2, went into this match with a bit of history. It involved Ille Nastase and comments from the Romanian roué which seemed to date from the 1970s if not even further back in time. In the Romania-Great Britain Fed Cup clash in April, in which both women played, Konta was reduced to tears by what she felt were threats and intimidation by the home fans in Bucharest. Nastase, the Romania captain, was sent off during that match, called Konta and her captain, Anne Keothavong, “bitches”, this happening after he’d asked the GB skipper for her hotel room number.

After that nonsense and the controversy in SW19 the previous day over the men hogging the show-courts, these two delivered the perfect riposte of a high-grade match. Both served, volleyed and 
competed lustily. The relentless chasing down of the ball by Halep looked like being the match’s outstanding and decisive feature but Konta simply wouldn’t give up trying to win. And to emerge victorious having made four times as many unforced errors as her opponent was astonishing.

The court was covered against the lashing rain but Konta retained her sun visor. When you’ve come this far, finally winning round the Wimbledon crowd, you keep doing the things you’ve always done. But she seemed nervous and in too much of a hurry. Maybe Halep’s grunts were off-putting. Amplified under the roof, they were louder than normal. Perhaps Konta was trying to hit these guttural noises as they sailed over the net rather than the ball, a problem first identified by the great Aussie wit Clive James when Jimmy Connors first shocked the All-England Club with his mouth emissions.

Konta was as usual getting down low for her returns. She’s a crouching tigress, but did she have a hidden dragon among her shots? Halep sensed she didn’t like to return off a high, bouncing ball. The Konta drive volley wasn’t really working. But, with a two-fisted backhand blurred into the corner, she broke back.

Among the Konta shots that stayed within the lines, and there were many, they were only winners if Halep’s world-class tenacity could be overcome. Almost every point was to the death, but the unforced errors would cost Konta in the first tie-break. Recovering from an astonishing pick-up from Halep to give the Romanian a mini-break, Konta was again let down by the drive volley.

The second set followed a similar pattern with Konta spying glimmers of a breakthrough and Halep shutting the door often but not always. Konta was 4-3 ahead and 15-40 on Halep’s serve but overhit again. Her aim was going to have to be true in the tie-break which was almost inevitable. Both women won points against serve, then Konta eked out the crucial one. Her last two backhand drives were searing and ungettable, even for Halep.

By the third set Konta’s unforced errors had climbed to 36. Lesser players would have blown up in the face of that stat. But she was more than compensating for the flaws with stunning groundstrokes, coolness under the fiercest pressure and an absolute determination that this was not going to be another nearly-but-not-quite day, the hopes of the country dashed again.

How could she get the better of this gutsy competitor and brilliant athlete? The breakthrough came after they traded terrific hits, a Konta lob being the pick. This pair still had the energy for the best game of the match when Halep very nearly cancelled out the break. Then two flashing cross-courters, backhand and forehand, brought Konta to the brink.

Next? She’s going back to the 1970s again and bidding to become the first woman to reach the final for 40 years.