Forty years ago Britain was a very different place. The Queen’s silver jubilee was celebrated enthusiastically throughout the land, a new partnership with Europe had just been formed and Virginia Wade won the Wimbledon ladies’ singles title. Nowadays the monarch’s landmarks are merely respectfully noted, Britain is on its way out of the EU and there hasn’t been a female champion at SW19 from these shores since 1977.
But now Johanna Konta is teetering on the edge of greatness, having become the first British woman to reach the semi-finals at Wimbledon for 39 years. She will face five-time champion Venus Williams on Thursday (13 July) for her chance to emulate Wade and achieve sporting immortality.
Through the mists of time it is easy to forget how good a player Wade was. Her most hallowed victory came during the twilight of her career, years after she had won the Australian and US opens. But to this Wimbledon-glory-starved nation the enduring images of her will always be beating Dutchwoman Betty Stove in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II exactly 40 years ago.
Konta’s story is a markedly different to that of the women she is seeking to emulate. Wade’s career began during the amateur days and stretched into the professional “Open” era.
The right-hander from Dorset beat Billie-Jean King to win the first ever professional US Open in 1968 and received the princely sum of $6,000 (£4,665) for her troubles. Konta, in stark contrast, has already won £550,000 for reaching the Wimbledon last four. At least the female players are now, finally, rewarded with the same pay as their male counterparts.
The 1977 champion was born in Bournemouth while Konta hails from Sydney, Australia. Wade is considered as British as afternoon tea but it has taken Konta some time to find her way into the hearts of the Great British public.
Aside from their differing birthplaces, both spent the bulk of their childhoods in sunnier southern hemisphere climes. Wade’s family moved to South Africa when she was just one only returned to England when she was 15. Konta is the offspring of Hungarian parents and began her tennis career in Australia. She too moved to England when she was 15 and became a British citizen in 2012 at the age of 21.
Since attaining British nationality her progress up the tennis ladder has been slow yet certain: last year she reached her first grand slam semi-final (away from the glare of free-to-air television) in Melbourne, where the Australian media made much of her switch in national allegiance. The 26-year-old reached the quarter-finals in Australia this year but was knocked out by the eventual champion, a certain Serena Williams.
It is the absence of the younger Williams sister, due to the imminent birth of her first child, that is a key factor in making this year’s women’s draw so exciting. There is a palpable sense among the locker room that this could be anyone’s year. The list of possible champions includes the older Williams sister, 37 years young and the winner of seven major titles but none since 2008, who Konta will now duel with for a sixth time.
The other semi-final will contain 23-year-old Garbiñe Muguruza, who won the French Open last year, and outsider Magdaléna Rybáriková, who has had an astonishing 2017 on grass, so good that she has only been beaten once on the surface – by Konta.
The growing groundswell of support behind Konta has been apparent throughout the tournament, not least due to the battling nature of her victories; four tie-breaks, a trio of three-setters, overcoming Donna Vekić 10-8 in the second round decider and coming from behind to beat Halep in an epic quarter-final. As a television viewer there was a simple sign of how popular Konta has become: when her pulsating battle with Halep reached 6pm, it was the prime time news bulletin that was switched to BBC Two.
Once a player has been taken to Wimbledon hearts it stays cherished. Tim Henman’s repeated overachieving – amid a string of plucky defeats – at the British home of tennis meant he took a special place in fans’ hearts.
Via her Wimbledon heroics, Konta now finds herself valued by a country which can so often have mixed feelings about naturalised citizens (just think of the relative merits and reactions to Henman and Greg Rusedski, who of the two was the only one to reach a grand slam final). Mo Farah and Kevin Pietersen will tell you all you need to know about that.
Konta’s new status as a national treasure can possibly be summed up by one image from her dramatic victory. As she left Centre Court following her quarter-final triumph came a moment so quintessentially British it ought to be in a Richard Curtis movie: a Chelsea Pensioner persuaded her to join him in a grinning courtside selfie. The rest of the country will be hoping that isn’t the last historic memento to take from this Wimbledon fortnight.