What is most remarkable about even discussing Johanna Konta playing Serena Williams in the quarter-final of a grand slam is that it seems entirely normal. As Martina Navratilova said on Monday, “She looks like she belongs.”Konta, ranked 47th in the world a year ago and at No9 now, thinks so too – although she will not express the sentiment in such blunt terms.Nor does she know how she will react when she looks across the net in the Rod Laver Arena on Wednesday afternoon and sees a player who is one major away from overtaking Steffi Graf’s record of 22 majors. If she sticks to her “process”, she will just play her shots – which have grown in power and accuracy since she reached the semi-finals last year – and trust her talent.She agrees it is the ultimate test in her sport, one she has earned here by beating four good players: including the former world No1 Caroline Wozniacki for the loss of four gamesand, on Monday, the tough Russian Ekaterina Makarova in an hour and nine minutes.
“I guess so,” she says when asked whether this is the biggest match of her career, “because [Williams] is the greatest player to be playing right now. She has pretty much done it all in our sport and very few people get to do that in whatever discipline they do. Because she has made herself such an icon, I think she has that effect [of inspiring awe] on people.
“I have never been on court with her, so I am looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to competing, and really going out there and trusting in my own system and trusting in the good things that I bring to the court.”Those are the answers that can sound programmed. But such thinking is Konta’s bedrock. Everything is compartmentalised. She allows nothing to disturb her planning or her mindset. It is at odds with her bright-as-a-button personality, full of giving and blushing and ordinariness. A lot of that she will have gathered from years listening to her life coach, Juan Coto, who died last year. It is ingrained in her personality now.
It would be a reach to say she will beat Williams but she has as good a chance as anyone left in the field. In fact, she is in marginally better shape. Konta has spent only five hours and nine minutes on court, for the loss of 22 games in four matches; Williams has played for five hours and 34 minutes and given up 27 games.In other departments, especially off the ground, they are seriously close. They are tied seventh, on 23%, in total winners, Williams hitting 110 in 475 efforts, Konta 97 from 423. Konta’s have come on the forehand side 7% of the time (29/423), Williams 8% (46/519); on the backhand, Williams leads 6% to Konta’s 4%; and there is nothing between them in volleys and overhead smashes.
It is defensively where Konta has an edge. She has hit 72 unforced errors from 423 shots (17%); Williams has struck 125 from 475 (26%, split equally between forehand and backhand). That could be where the match is won and lost. If Konta can hold her composure and keep pounding Williams on either wing, she might disrupt her rhythm and induce the sort of panic Roberta Vinci did at the US Open two years ago.Vinci’s strength was around the net, of course, but Williams buckled when the ball kept coming back at her. Then she stood on the brink of history, two wins away from a calendar slam. Here another Steffi Graf record beckons. But she is 35. Time is not a friend.
Williams’s coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, admitted he was concerned about his player’s lack of speed and reduced mobility lately. “We are going to do a lot of exercises for sure,” he said. “Pre-season for me was good. There is no explanation why she doesn’t move as well as she can. We have to solve that, especially against Konta who is someone who plays so fast, so aggressive, takes the ball early. You can’t afford to be slow.“It is going to be difficult. She is someone I look at. Last year she was already impressive. I saw her play at the start of the year and she has been the player that has impressed me the most.“She moves super fast. From every position, she tries to hit every shot. She is so aggressive every time she hits the ball.
“She was impressive when she won Sydney. But it was also the way that she won it. She has no doubts at the moment.”
Konta will digest all of this and discuss little of it. For all her bonhomie, she is a professional and guards the details of her preparation as avidly as all the leading players, including Williams. The American says she has been watching Konta “a lot”, which is as sound a compliment as she could pay a rival. And Konta, of course, has been watching Williams since she was a young girl starting out in the game.
She has beaten Serena’s sister, Venus, and would be the first British player to do the Williams double if she were to prevail here but that thought has not invaded her plans.“I don’t necessarily think it is as simple as that,” she says. “The first thing is that Serena and Venus are different in some ways, so it is important for me to prepare to play Serena the way Serena plays. But all the experiences I have had the opportunity to accumulate, especially in the last year and a half, and even before that, have prepared me the best that I could be to play someone like Serena.
“I am just looking forward to playing the ball, playing each point on its own and just enjoying competing – like I have every single other match. It is also important to keep a perspective that it is another opportunity to compete here and, yes, I am just trying to extend my stay here as long as possible.” Perspective is at the core of her values. As she said earlier in her press conference, “It’s not necessarily just your own personal sacrifice. It’s also the people around you. No one makes it on their own. Even though this is an individual sport, you rely on a support system, whether that’s your parents, other family members, close friends or the coaching team you have from a very young age,
“It’s not just a job. It’s a way of life. And all of us live and breathe it, and put every inch of ourselves into it to trying to get to here. I think along the way, like with anything, you will find difficulties. You will move continents. You will – not me personally, but I know a lot of players – you will have some career-threatening injuries.
“There are different things that life throws at you, and I think it’s in the face of that where you try to push through, continue to keep hope more than anything, and keep working.” It sounds prosaic. But there is a sort of poetry in it too, a philosophy to go with the seemingly arid nature of the method, the repetition and the sweat. When Konta goes on to court with Williams on Wednesday, she will know deep down she has been granted a rare chance to make some history. Even she will smile or cry over that when the job is done.
Konta doesn’t imagine Williams is ready to leave tennis at the age of 35, especially given she needs just one more grand slam title to surpass the Graf landmark of 22 in the Open era, and says: “I was thinking recently that I would love the opportunity to be on court with her before she retired.” And here she is. The prize is not just a second semi-final here in the space of a year, but the chance to beat a legend.