First you have to suffer. The unspoken rule for any British hopeful striving to scratch the nation’s itch at Wimbledon is that the journey is never complete until they have dragged themselves off a deflated Centre Court at the end of their semi-final debut with sympathetic applause ringing in their ears, their bottom lip quivering and that lump in their throat threatening to spill on to the grass, guilty only of daring to think it would be different this time.
Even Virginia Wade suffered. Johanna Konta has heard a lot about the last British woman to win Wimbledon over the past fortnight but amid all the wistfulness about 1977 it tends to get lost that Wade lost her first two semi-finals – to Olga Morozova in 1974 and Evonne Cawley in 1976 – before breaking through to claim the title. While no two careers are ever the same, there is a lesson for Konta after she became the latest victim of Venus Williams’s astonishing resurgence.
Konta is singular in her determination to drown out any unnecessary noise. After losing to Williams in 73 disappointing minutes, the 26-year-old even seemed mildly surprised about the nascent Konta mania that has been gradually sweeping across the country over the past fortnight, bubbling away on the newly renamed Konta Kop at the All England Club.
Yet in the unlikely event Konta spends the next few days thumbing through old Wimbledon yearbooks instead of baking muffins, watching Poldark and getting ready for that U2 concert, SW19’s latest doomed heroine might find solace in that slice of tennis trivia concerning Wade’s record. It will tell her she is not alone and that there is no such thing as a lasting bruise in sport, no matter how agonising defeat must feel in the immediate aftermath.
There are two ways for Konta to react after her 6-4, 6-2 defeat to Williams, who killed the patriotic hype and fervour with a mixture of experience and grass-court expertise that carried her to her first final here since 2009. Either Konta sinks back into the shadows and plummets back to the mid-100s, never to challenge again; or she responds. She digs in and works harder than before. She comes back stronger, more driven than ever, more varied and consistent and less likely to crack in the face of pressure.
It will be important for Konta to maintain a sense of perspective. Two years ago she languished at 146th in the rankings. She admitted she was too highly strung to fulfil her potential. Her emotions got the better of her and nerves suffocated her talent.
The turning point came when she worked out how to conquer those demons and she can be impossible to read on court these days, which can often make her seem strangely mechanical, bloodless even, devoid of a personality. When she hit four unforced errors in that fateful 10th game at the end of the first set, handing Williams the initiative, it was possible to imagine the Jobot malfunctioning, sparks flying, smoke coming out of her ears, an engineer running on court during the changeover to switch her off and on again.
Williams, who will be a slight but sentimental favourite against Garbiñe Muguruza, was outstanding. The 37-year-old American was too powerful and finessed. She boasted class and pedigree. The five-times champion had 86 wins at Wimbledon to Konta’s six at the outset. She saved a break point in the first set with a 106mph second-serve ace, offering a crushing reminder of why she reached the Australian Open final in January, in spite of the autoimmune disease that can leave her exhausted on any given day.
There was something wonderfully poised and contained about the way Williams would walk slowly back to the baseline in between points, as though she was taking a stroll in her own private garden, before those long legs carried her gracefully around the court as soon as the ball was in play, all lithe movement and menace, forcing Konta to duck for cover with one ace in the second set. That stinging final forehand from Williams will leave a mark.
The challenge for Konta is to show that she is tough enough to come back for more punishment. The tears will dry. The pain will fade away. History weighed too heavily on her shoulders this time. Greatness, however, remains tantalisingly within reach. She must believe she can grab it.