T o beat the best, you have to be at your best. And yesterday, Barbora Strycova was and Johanna Konta wasn’t.
As a result, it is the 33-year-old Czech, who has spent most of this year thinking about retiring, who will face Serena Williams tomorrow while Konta will be back at home, binge-watching Killing Eve on the telly.
Strycova, who has earned most of her corn as a professional winning doubles titles, beat Konta 7-6, 6-1, which looks pretty bald on paper. But what she did for 97 minutes on an increasingly tense Centre Court was unpick the not inconsiderable defences of Britain’s No 1 with guile and craft, with spin and with speed.
This was an opponent the like of which Konta had not faced on the SW19 grass this year. This was an opponent who had Konta utterly stymied.
“I guess what happened is that I have an opponent on the other side of the court who has everything to say in how the match goes,” Konta said. “I think she was playing very well.
“I think I couldn’t quite find the level that I needed to make it difficult and challenging for the kind of player she is. She’s a very difficult player to play on this surface, and in general. She’s a very good player.”
We had established, then, that Strycova was very good. But what of Konta? Her first serve was not firing with the accuracy and venom of the previous rounds (she only hit the mark 51 per cent of the time), which meant that her one-two punch – big serve, thump away the ground stroke winner – was never able to get going.
Then there were the 34 unforced errors to Strycova’s nine.
But while the stats looked miserable, they did not explain how the small but lightning-fast Czech defused Konta’s power game. Every return came back with spin and no pace – and when she managed to get 89 per cent of the returns in play, it gave Konta little room for manoeuvre. The world No 18 thrives on pace and she was getting nothing from the Czech’s racket.
“She moves very well, so she gets a lot of balls back,” Konta said. “She asks you a lot of questions with a lot of balls. She’s able to move the ball around in kind of a tricky way. She can slice really well. She can slow the game down quite well.
“She gives her opponents every opportunity to not feel great out there. That’s what she handed to me. I couldn’t find an answer .”
But still, the drive volley that she thumped a mile out of court on break point in the second set was eerily reminiscent of the forehand she fluffed on set point in the French Open semi-final against Marketa Vondrousova.
Another huge opportunity at a grand slam, another sad loss for Konta. And that error count did not look too good on her record.
When this was mentioned to her, Konta bridled. “I don’t think you need to pick on me in a harsh way. You’re being quite disrespectful and you’re patronising me,” she said. “I’m a professional competitor who did her best today, and that’s all there is to that.”
And, to an extent, she was right. She had been in control at 4-1 up in the first set and the crowd was getting excited. But when Strycova started to slice and dice, to mix up the play and to drive Konta to distraction, everything changed. By the time the Czech had taken the opening set on a tiebreak, the crowd had gone quiet and Konta had been bound and gagged.
So now the 5ft 5in Strycova will take on the giant of women’s tennis that is Serena Williams, while Konta will go home to ponder what might have been.
It was a hugely disappointing loss, but Konta has still reached the semi-finals at Roland Garros and the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in the past six weeks. She is up to No 14 in the world rankings and still has the US Open to come.
But oh, how she must wish that Strycova had gone through with her retirement plans before she came anywhere near the All England Club.