At the start of Wimbledon, player-turned-commentator Andrew Castle angrily smashed a forehand at the sceptics who question Johanna Konta’s credentials as Britain’s great-hope-in-whites.
Well, to cries of “Let’s go, Jo-Ko, let’s go” the last home hope left standing enthralled the Centre Court by battling through to the quarter-finals. For a moment, right at the end, she very nearly threatened to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory – how British would that have been? If what got her through her third match point came from somewhere else, then thank goodness for it.
After defeating two-times singles champion Petra Kvitova 4-6, 6-2, 6-4, Konta faces another Czech today in Barbora Strycova, pictured. With more shocks yesterday, including the exit of No 1 seed Ashleigh Barty, it’s maybe not quite anybody’s tournament with Serena Williams lurking, but Konta definitely has a chance.
“I don’t look at it like that,” she said when invited to talk up her prospects of becoming the first Brit to win the women’s singles since Virginia Wade way back in 1977. “Every person that’s still in the draw, there’s a reason why. The eight best players of this tournament are still there.”
Konta was born in Australia to Hungarian parents before moving here and for this reason, Castle said, “some bitter people will forever doubt that she is fully British – but for me she is”.
There was no question, though, that Centre gave her their fullest backing for the latest and most rigorous test of her credentials as a possible champ. The crowd cheered in all the right places – and groaned and sighed, too.
“They were magnificent,” agreed Konta. “A British player in front of a home crowd, you’re always going to be spoiled for support, spoiled for just the energy they give you. I’m really pleased that I got to play an entertaining match for them because I felt they enjoyed it.” Enjoyed? Well maybe they did over that bowl of strawberries later or more likely that glass of wine – for the nerves, you understand.
The first set was tense, tight and tenaciously fought, but Kovitova’s fearsome club of a forehand looked like being the dominant shot and so it proved. The Czech wasn’t moving much but when you’ve got that weapon, running around can be superfluous. It was already a high-quality encounter with Konta narrowly failing to grab her chance of a break and then Kvitova showing her how it’s done.
“I actually thought I did quite well in that first set to stay with her,” said Konta. “There was very little in it, she just started playing incredibly well. I knew going into the match there would be big pockets where I would have very little say in it.”
Strangely, those pockets closed up for Kvitova after that. Then again, injury had restricted her preparations for Wimbledon. Then again, Konta has been serving well with good defence. Maintaining 2019’s useful knack of prevailing in the final set and not choking, though her semi-final defeat at Roland-Garros must have been difficult to forget.
Konta aimed to make amends for the first set quickly, breaking Kvitova in the opening game of the second. The next game lasted 12 minutes. Konta then faced two break points but recovered with the help of a familiar one-two: wide-swinging serve, then a screeching forehand to the open side.
There was no let-up in the tension or the quality with the first point of the next game producing the longest rally – 16 shots. Then suddenly, out of this claustrophobic tennis, Konta could glimpse some daylight. There was another break and a hold for 4-0. Konta was in control now, her opponent making far more errors. Before she had the chance to serve for the set Konta required treatment on an ankle – a strip of plaster and, bizarrely, wafting with a purple fan. She jumped back on to the court and, showing no ill effects, levelled the match with an ace.
Kvitova then left the court for a break while Konta sat with a towel on legs which bounced furiously as she contemplated the deciding set. Kvitova opened it by serving to love then let out a blood-curdling scream. Hopefully she wasn’t in pain and was simply trying to motivate herself but she was under pressure the next time she served, and whenever the rallies went any distance Konta usually emerged with the point. She achieved another break but it wasn’t over yet.
The Kvitova forehand revived to take her within a point of breaking back but Konta’s serve was too strong. Konta fancied breaking Kvitova again, a drop volley and a zinging forehand putting her in prime position. Kvitova emitted another Hammer Horror scream but succumbed.
Four-one up - there wouldn’t be a wobble, would there? Konta served for the last eight, fluffed a drop shot, hit one of those unstoppable forehands, double-faulted, blew two match points - and the game. Was she thinking of Roland-Garros and about to scream herself? Konta lost the next game but still had a break. Then, to big, unequivocal cheers, she had the match.