It was the grunt that was the give-away.
After 10 minutes, Johanna Konta had a break point against the Serena Williams serve. For the first time in the match, Williams grunted with the effort but she snatched the break point back. She meant business. And 65 minutes later, she was in the semi-finals of the Australian Open 6-2, 6-3.
Konta had made Williams work and concentrate and she had her fretting about her first serve. Normally the most ferocious shot on the women’s tour, she could not land a first serve to save herself in the first set. No matter: Williams merely trusted in her second serve and tightened the bolts on every other shot. That was more than enough to get the job done.
With gushing generosity, the current world No 2 (if she wins the title on Sunday, she will be restored to the No 1 position) tipped Konta as a future Melbourne champion. Future but not present. For the present, Williams is the odds-on favourite to win her seventh Australian title and her 23rd grand slam trophy overall. For now, Serena is the boss.
“She tends to do really good in Australia,” Williams said. “With her game, I definitely see her as a future champion.”
For Konta, it was a disappointing loss but it was not a devastating blow to her confidence. She had never played Serena before – she has a 2-1 winning record over her sister Venus – and pitting her skills and strengths against possibly the best female player of all time taught her many lessons. Some of them will take time to fully sink in but Konta is an intelligent woman and a dedicated worker. She knows now where her weaknesses lie and she intends to shore up those holes in her defences.
“I think it was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” she said. “I think there’s so many things I can learn from that, so many things I can look to improve on, also to acknowledge some things that I did well.
“I think, credit to her, she played an almost perfect first set. I felt she really did incredibly well. She just showed, and shows, why she is who she is.
“I definitely would have liked to have probably have a bit more say in the match than I did. But unfortunately that’s also so much to do with Serena herself, the kind of tennis that she plays. That’s what she’s very good at – the way she’s able to dictate and the way she’s able to really make sure that the matches and the points are on her terms.”
Where some players may have choked under the pressure of facing Williams for a grand slam semi-final spot, Konta’s nerve held firm. It was just that she was not given the chance to let her game flow. As Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’s coach put it: Konta could not get Plan A to work and she did not seem to have a Plan B. Konta’s coach, Wim Fissette, tended to agree.
“I told Johanna after the match, the best Serena will win every match, we have to realise that,” he said. “Serena was not 100 per cent but she was at a very high level, especially the first set.
“For Johanna, it was a bit difficult to realise, or to make a decision for herself after that first set, ‘is it me who’s not playing good enough or is it Serena who is playing that well?’ That is the first time Johanna played Serena and I think she couldn’t find an answer,
“It’s also difficult for Johanna because she is normally the one who is dictating and decides what happens in the match but today she was totally out of control. And that’s something you have to accept when you play Serena: she decides what is happening.”
With her eyes red and her nose pink, Konta admitted that she had been crying in the locker room after the match. She was not down or depressed; she is just an emotional character and now she was looking forward to a few days of rest before getting back to the practice courts. Reaching the semi-finals in China at the start of the month, winning the title in Sydney the week before the Open and then reaching the quarter-finals in Melbourne had taken their toll.
“I have to admit, the last few weeks have been a bit like Groundhog Day – but then, that’s a good problem to have,” she said. “I’m really grateful to have got this far and had the chance to play someone who is arguably the best tennis player in the world.”
Fissette was glad for the experience, too. He has coached world No 1s in the past and he knows what it takes to get to the top – and now that Konta has tasted battle with the very best of the best, she can only improve.
“It’s a great lesson and it’s great to play a match against Serena at this stage,” he said. “I think she can learn a lot from this match, a lot of good things, also a lot of things she can do better. I think the next match she will play against Serena will be a different one.”