Johanna Konta left Wimbledon frustrated with herself and angry with her critics on Tuesday evening, one win short of a semi-final against Serena Williams and reluctant to drill deeper into the causes of another collapse when in sight of the bigger prize at a major.
All tournament Konta had played the sort of tennis worthy of much more than losing in straight sets to an unseeded opponent for the second slam in a row, and she seemed to drown in her own disappointment when she handed the determined Czech Barbora Strycova a ridiculously easy win and that coveted place in the last four opposite Williams on Thursday.
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And what an opportunity the British No 1 has missed. Earlier in the afternoon, Williams was out of sorts for long stretches of her match against her compatriot Alison Riske before eking out a nervous 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 result in just over two hours. At 37 and recovering from inactivity, knee problems and gathering doubts about her longevity, the owner of seven Wimbledon singles titles looks there for the taking.
As for Konta, she conceded her defeat by the world No 54 was worse than her semi-final loss to another Czech, the unseeded teenager Marketa Vondrousova, at the French Open, when she was also cruising before feeling the cold, unforgiving hand of expectation on her trembling shoulders. In each case, she had beaten some excellent opponents before inexplicably losing all shape and focus.
In Paris she was quietly resigned. Here, however, after attributing the result to the excellence of her opponent, she snapped at the suggestion she was not facing up to the scale of her shortcomings when approaching the concluding weekend of a slam.
In a heated exchange with one inquisitor who pointed out she had made 34 unforced errors in an hour and 37 minutes, Konta said: “Is that in your professional tennis opinion?” before adding: “I don’t think you need to pick on me in a harsh way. I think I’m very open with you guys. I say how I feel out there. If you don’t want to accept that answer or you don’t agree with it, that’s fine. I still believe in the tennis that I play. I still believe in the way I competed.”
Konta’s devotion to her “process” and “acceptance” does not allow for negativity – and there was plenty of that coming her way in an unusually tough press conference. The exchange slithered to an ugly finish when the normally ultra-polite Konta said: “Please don’t patronise me.”
It was her misfortune, perhaps, to strike Strycova in the form of her life. After a performance as intelligent and irresistible as any in the draw so far, she could hardly contain her smile: “I think it was one of the best matches I’ve played here. I haven’t been on Centre Court, so it was special for me. It’s a great week to play Serena. I really can’t wait for Thursday.”
Chris Evert, who won here three times, put it bluntly in courtside commentary: “I was disappointed. Jo Konta, I gotta tell you, I watched her in the semi-finals in the French, and she was looking good enough to win there. Then she comes out here and she froze. Strycova broke up her rhythm.”
So, Konta was left to contemplate – away from the scrutiny of the media – how she went from bossing the match in the first half hour to throwing it in the bin in the concluding 33 minutes. Mostly it was her own fault. Her serve, impressive all tournament, faltered and, so bamboozled was she by the Strycova slice to her forehand, that her own strengths were neutered.
She began brilliantly. At 4-1 up, the match was hers to lose. Strycova could not match her for power on the ground and found her serve difficult to cope with. But as the Konta serve dipped, Strycova’s spirits rose.
The second set was excruciating to watch as point after point leaked from Konta’s racket. All discipline deserted her as she seemed trapped between her rigid but normally successful formula of hitting hard and flat behind a solid serve, and mixing it up in a vain attempt to match her clever opponent.
For Williams, Wimbledon is still a piece of heaven in a sometimes hellish existence. Fined a ludicrously harsh $10,000 for damaging a practice court the day before the tournament started when she flung her racket away, she has also opened her heart to Harper’s Bazaar magazine about her meltdown in the final of the US Open against Naomi Osaka last September. It was, she told Osaka in an open letter, the media’s fault. So, not a great tournament for the Fourth Estate so far.
It is as if, away from the court, plenty of demons lurk to torment Williams. She has not won a tournament since becoming a mother for the first time in September 2017, and her aura has faded, no question, although she is still capable of playing extraordinary tennis.