JOHANNA KONTA played almost perfect tennis for the opening five games of her Wimbledon quarter-final against unseeded Czech Barbora Strycova on an expectant Centre Court on Tuesday (9).
Her power game was locked and loaded and there appeared little Strycova could do to prevent the Briton steaming into a semi-final showdown with seven-time champion Serena Williams.
An hour or so later, however, face red, thoughts scrambled and racket arm flailing away like a robot gone rogue, the 19th seed faced match point after an astonishing collapse.
What happened next was not a surprise. Konta over-cooked a backhand for her 34th unforced error and the 33-year-old Strycova put her hands to her face, perhaps in shock that she was into her first Grand Slam semi-final at the 53rd attempt.
Her 7-6(5) 6-1 triumph means she is the oldest first-time Grand Slam singles semi-finalist.
“It was always my dream to play good at this tournament,” Strycova told reporters after completing a memorable day by reaching the doubles quarter-finals with Hsieh Su-wei.
“It’s happening at this age now, it’s incredible. It shows if you believe it, it’s happening.”
Her victory was one of brains over brawn and a painful lesson, once again, for Konta that it pays to have something other than Plan A at the business end of majors.
Strycova, ranked three in the world in doubles but no slouch at singles having made the last eight here in 2014, never panicked and rode the early blows as she fell 4-1 behind.
Heavyweight boxing great Muhammad Ali coined the phrase ‘rope-a-dope’ when he beat George Foreman in the infamous Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 having drawn his great rival’s sting.
It was a similar scenario at the more sedate setting of the All England Club and by the end a desperate Konta, so potent early on, was swinging and missing with monotonous regularity.
“Plan B should not be beating yourself,” three-time Wimbledon champion John McEnroe remarked on the BBC. “If you start doing it you must pull back and dig in.”
Against twice Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova on Monday, Konta fought power with power, subtlety was not required.
Less-celebrated Czech Strycova has a bag of tricks though and when she began to mix up the pace and spin and change the angle of attack, the local favourite failed to respond.
Two years ago Konta raised hope of a first British women’s champion since Virginia Wade’s triumph in 1977, only to lose to Venus Williams. This defeat, a round earlier, should hurt more.
Following the match, however, just as after her recent French Open semi-final defeat by another tricky Czech, Marketa Vondrousova, she slipped back into the “no regrets” mantra.
“Every decision I made, every thought process, every opportunity that I gave myself, I have no regrets in doing. I did the best that I could,” she said.
“She gives her opponents every opportunity to not feel great out there. I couldn’t find an answer for it today.”
It had all begun so well.
Konta pulverised a backhand to save a break point in the opening game then broke with another baseline bomb.
She even fired down a second serve ace as she moved 3-0 ahead with Strycova looking vulnerable in every rally.
The change came with the Czech serving at 1-4 though. She served and volleyed in the following game, and in the next a low sliced return teased an error from Konta as she broke back.
Every time the British hope erred the crowd “ahhhed” and it gradually sapped Konta’s confidence.
The tiebreak summed up her display. She went 3-1 down with a dreadful volley, but responded to lead 5-4 with two sizzling backhands that had the crowd erupting.
Strycova levelled with a cool volley, then a brave second serve forced an error. When Konta’s next forehand thumped the net the set was over and effectively so was her challenge.
“I was playing a lot of slice. She didn’t really know what to expect,” Strycova said.
Serena be warned.