At the end of the day, said Johanna Konta, we are entertainers. Nice sentiment, Jo, but it’s more complicated than that. If you’re British and you’re playing at Wimbledon – really competing, and not just free to stroll the lanes and sniff the petunias after a first-round thrashing – then you’ll have this great crushing weight on your shoulders of a nation that for two daft weeks of every year wonders if tennis might hold the secret to life’s inner meaning.
This year more than any other in recent memory, what with the dream still flickering of a spectacular double triumph – at least until Andy Murray’s sad demise. But when that fond hope dashed there was still Konta. There was only Konta, to be truthful. What pressure.
It wasn’t the weight of expectation which did for her yesterday, though, rather that Venus Williams at 37 and now the oldest player to reach a final in SW19 for 23 years, was too good. Still too cool, too canny and too capable of bulleting her groundstrokes home for a 6-4, 6-2 victory.
Men may be from Mars but elite, enduring champions are definitely called Venus. Just a sideways squint at Williams’ factfile might have made Konta feel she was three games to love down before a ball was thwacked: five times Wimbledon champion, 20th tournament appearance, 100 Wimbers matches.
Well, the stats might have unnerved Konta if this keen baker wasn’t such a tough cookie. She’d already shown her gutsiness in two thrilling victories – the first against Donna Vekic to endear herself to the Centre Court; the second against Simona Halep being simply the best match of the tournament.
She was off her seat for the coin-toss first, bouncing around, fresh-air thwacking, almost belting the official on the bum in her keenness to get going. Meanwhile Williams, the veteran, continued adjusting a lace.
A buzzing bee delayed the start, Williams careful not to squash it, which would have been a fairly straightforward shot for the highly-skilled veteran. The crowd were a bit over-excited and maybe Konta was too when she began by booming long. When she scored her first point the stands went mildly berserk.
The match didn’t have the seductive rhythm of the modern classic with Halep. The stately Williams was intent on doing most of her work from an almost stationary position, but good work it was.
Konta was still shooting beyond the baseline but when she contrived a winner it was lustily roared. The Centre Court fans were really rooting for their new heroine but Williams was well capable of getting herself out of any trouble with that sweet-swinging forehand.
There were no break points until in the ninth game Konta produced two. A smart drive which wrongfooted her and a 106 mph second serve rescued Williams. One hundred and six? That put the 80-odd achieved by poor Andy into perspective.
This seemed like the pivotal moment. Williams was asked if she agreed as soon as she came off court but played down the significance of her whizz-bang. “I was just out there competing,” she said. “I try to produce whatever’s needed at the time. There’s no plan, I don’t plan. I just try to compete.”
The elder Williams sister revealed that she was drawing inspiration from Serena, absent from the championships this year as she and her fiance are expecting their first child.
“I miss her so much,” she said. “I’m trying to take the same courage on the court that she would have. I’m trying to do the things she would do.”
After that, the looseness in Konta’s play which simply wasn’t there in the previous round then presented Williams with three set points. Another wayward volley from Konta, summing up this game and much of the match for her, proved crucial.
Williams was starting to look ruthless, in a relaxed kind of way, and opened her account in the second set, making it ten out of 11 points won. When Williams was next on serve Konta got to 30-all.
It wasn’t a giant opening but there was a glint of daylight. Once again though she struck with too much oomph where, two days before, almost everything was landing the right side of the lines.
Then a dramatic game. Very quickly, thanks to a Williams drive skiffing the net and a double-fault, Konta was love-40 down. Two break points were saved and crowd bellowed only to very quickly groan in the classic way as Williams surged further ahead.
Konta simply had to break back immediately but couldn’t put her chances away. Williams would let out a pained yelp when forced to move but the end result was usually profitable.
She was asked about her movement or lack of it. “Playing really big servers there hasn’t been a ton of time to get to the net. Points have been quick,” she said.
Now Konta was 4-1 and a set down. She got to 40-love and the Centre Court tried one last time to rally her. But Williams’ power and precision was making them gasp. Serving to stay in the championships the despairing cry rang out: “Come on Jo, you can do this!” But, though certainly entertaining this fortnight, she couldn’t.