It was supposed to be a soft-touch but, on this stage, nothing ever is. With the expectation of an overcast Centre Court wrapped around her shoulders, a Hail Mary-hitting Johanna Konta collapsed in a dispiriting and ultimately self-inflicted 7-6 6-1 defeat to Barbora Strycova in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon.
Strycova, a squat, unfancied veteran who had only reached the Grand Slam quarter-final stage once previously – albeit here at Wimbledon in 2015 – was supposed to be outgunned by the athleticism of Konta. Instead, it was the Czech’s tricky armoury of unorthodox spin that exposed the Brit’s inconsistencies in a second-set that was as much about Strycova’s excellence as Konta’s misery.
The world No 54’s second serve had started with the puff of a ‘60s diesel engine and looked to be an early feeding ground for Konta, whose blistering returns forced an immediate break of serve to open the match and, at least for a glimmer, appeared to have settled her nerves.
However, sensing a weakness in her underpowered opponent, Konta became steadily more aggressive – and erratic - as she attempted to rip the seam off every Strycova return and was ultimately undone by her chase of highlight-reel winners.
Cruising at 4-2 in the first set, she needlessly opened her shoulders and thrashed two low-percentage forehands towards the court’s furthest corner, and while they might have only given up on the tramline by a matter of inches, suddenly, without being placed under any true duress, Konta had handed back the break of serve and reignited the dampened embers of belief within her opponent.
Lit only by grey skies and graced by a spattering of empty seats on Centre Court, it was a pattern that tinged and ultimately overshadowed the Brit’s moments of brilliance as she gifted away a bewildering 22 unforced errors in the first set. And, as the pair drifted into a tie-break, Konta shuddered as Strycova raced into the ascendancy and a meek forehand told the tale of a first set where machine gun trebles were quickly followed by a magazine of blanks, and left the Brit with the uphill task of coming from a set down for the third successive match.
As nerves took hold, Konta increasingly relied on the raw power of baseline hitting, despite it being a blend of power and poise that had driven her early success. It was when Strycova was wheeled far behind the baseline by Konta’s forehand, and attempted to employ her signature chopping two-handed backhand slice as an effective rescue device, that the Brit was able to show off a range of zipped volleys of her own.
And yet it was the diminutive Strycova – some five inches shorter – whose subtler hands pulled at the match’s levers like putty. One of the Czech’s greatest weapons was in fact the cutest – a chameleon-like drop shot that colours itself at the last possible moment and thrice rescued points during those early exchanges.
In the opening game of the second-set, Strycova just barely wrapped the frame of her racket around a Konta forehand, sent it soaring high into the air and then swatted a passing shot down the line after Konta’s drive volley failed the test of conviction. The key to Strycova’s success was as simple as that: forcing Konta to play one last ball, throwing up a variety of everything from flat-struck winners to Sunday squash court slices, and waiting for the Brit’s inevitable mistake to come.
There was to be no last rousing fightback, no stir for the crowd to capitalise on as the attempts to form a Mexican wave frittered away. Rather, it was a second break of serve and a final sucker-punch as Strycova set up a semi-final against Serena Williams and left Britain bereft of hope in the singles for another year.
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