On one side of the net was a player bang in form with a series of encouraging results on grass behind her and the home crowd willing her to compete.
On the other was one who had not played on grass since last year and had seen no action at all since going out of the French Open a month ago.
But Johanna Konta, the British No2 who reached the quarter-finals in warm-up events in Birmingham and Eastbourne, knew beating Maria Sharapova on Centre Court was likely to be a bridge too far.
She came up short but was far from disgraced in losing 6-2, 6-2 in her first competitive match against a top-five player. “Well, it wasn’t just playing a top-five player,” she pointed out, not unreasonably. “It was playing a top five player on the Centre Court at Wimbledon. There were obviously a lot of special moments all rolled into one scenario. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
For Sharapova, ranked 122 places above Konta, it was a brisk return to the competitive arena after four weeks in which she could not find time for a competitive grass court warmup because of her hectic schedule.
“I just wanted to take care of business and I thought I did a good job,” she said after completing a brisk but not entirely straightforward victory.
With the cheers from Court 18 and her compatriot Liam Broady’s stirring five-set victory not long having stopped drifting into a soporific Centre Court, Konta started confidently.
Sharapova, back on the court where she announced her arrival as a teenage champion in 2004, initially appeared a little ring rusty. Her serve misfired slightly, double-faults offered up break points in both of Sharapova’s first two service games, but the door was slammed shut as quickly as it opened. After that the Russian won the next two games to love to establish a commanding 4-1 lead.
The second set began with a glimmer of hope for Konta, who had been impressive in marching to the Eastbourne quarter-finals and beating the world No8 Ekaterina Makarova along the way, as she broke for a 1-0 lead. Sharapova, her groundstrokes starting to flow, turned the screw and immediately broke back before effortlessly working her way to victory.
It was the fourth time Konta had lost in the first round at Wimbledon but she will take heart from a run of victories over players ranked in the top 100 in recent months and will feel confident she will soon be joining their ranks.
“I’m taking experiences and lessons and everything else from every match I’m playing. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve been playing a lot of good players in the last few weeks. Today was no different,” said the 24-year-old, who was born in Australia and arrived in the UK aged 14 but only gained British citizenship in 2012 following a convoluted process.
“To be honest, in terms of stage and scenario, I felt very comfortable out there. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the situation, nor did I feel overwhelmed by the player I was playing.”
Konta was also savvy enough too to deflect a question about whether or not Sharapova’s loud exhortations after striking the ball, which seemed to be louder than ever, had put her off. “I don’t quite hear that on the other side,” she said, not altogether convincingly.
For Sharapova, whose best performance since she won Wimbledon as a 17-year-old was being the runner-up to Petra Kvitova in 2011, it was the perfect preparation for sterner tests.
She may not have been playing competitively but she has been practising on grass for the past fortnight and eventually she saw off her opponent with typically ruthless precision.
“You can’t get too comfortable no matter what match you’re playing. You always have to work for every single point and keep your focus as much as you can,” she said.
Sharapova has played more matches on these historic lawns than any other current player bar the Williams sisters and still thinks about her moment of triumph every time she arrives at SW19. If both keep winning, she is on track to face Serena Williams in the semi-finals.
Whether it’s a first experience on Centre Court, as for Konta, or the umpteenth, as for Sharapova, the Russian said the experience would never lose its thrill.
“Being part of history is very special when you look back. When you’re walking down the stairs and you see both the women’s trophy and the men’s trophy, you think about how many incredible players have held those,” she said.
“You’re given the chance to walk out on Centre Court and experience the nerves, the butterflies, go out with no introductions and hit the first serve or first return, you just play tennis.”
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