Venus Williams could have played it safe.
She and Johanna Konta were tied, 4-4, in the first set of their Wimbledon semifinal. Williams was down, 30-40 and her first serve was long. Another miss and she was in danger of allowing Konta to serve for the set.
Instead of easing off her second serve to make sure she put it in play, Williams unleashed a 106 mph blast – even faster than her first serve – and the ball was on Konta. The normally graceful British hopeful looked stunned and weakly dribbled her forehand into the net.
Williams would win that game and the next, then cruised through the second set for a 6-4, 6-2 victory Thursday that ensured her first return to the Wimbledon women’s singles finals since 2009.
“For me it's just about betting on myself every time,” said Williams, 37. “When I look across the net, I don't think it's the right mentality to believe in that person more than me.”
Make no mistake, the entire tennis world is believing in Williams these days. The five-time Wimbledon winner is at the top of her game, and stands a good chance to hoist that trophy a sixth time. She plays Spain’s Garbine Muguruza in Saturday’s final, a player who won the French Open last year and in 2015 was runner-up at Wimbledon to Venus’ sister, Serena.
“I'm sure [Serena is] going to give me hopefully some things that will make a difference for me in the match,” said Venus, whose younger sister is on a pregnancy hiatus.
For the second day in a row, an American player toppled a British star at a packed Centre Court. On Wednesday, it was California’s Sam Querrey knocking off No. 1-ranked Andy Murray, the tournament’s defending champion.
Konta, 26, was making her second appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal after making it that far at the Australian Open last year.
Williams, meanwhile, is making her 20th appearance at Wimbledon, most among active players, and was the oldest woman in the starting field. She was runner-up at the Australian this year. In addition to her five tournament wins, she lost in the finals to Serena three times – 2002, ’03 and ’09 – and the Williams sisters won Wimbledon doubles six times.
In another situation, Williams might be the sentimental favorite. But not when playing a Brit in front of that crowd.
“Walking out there, I knew that I was playing against the home player, that maybe the crowd could get really loud,” she said. “But I think the crowd really supported her. I thought the crowd was really, really grateful for the great tennis. I didn't feel like, you know, they were against me. I just felt like they were for her, that they enjoyed the match.”
Konta was the first British woman to reach a singles semifinal since Virginia Wade in 1978. Her run this year was particularly impressive considering Konta had won just one match in her previous five appearances at Wimbledon.
“She dictated the match from the very first ball till the very last one,” she said of Williams. “I think she just showed her true qualities and why she's a five-time champion here, just a true champion that she is.
“It was very difficult for me to get a good foothold in the match. The few opportunities that I did get, she did incredibly well to take them away from me. I don't think I did too much wrong out there. I think it was all credit to her.”
Whereas Konta’s father was watching from his seat at Centre Court, her mother was walking outside the venue, too antsy to watch the match.
“She just gets too nervous watching me live,” Konta said. “She likes to walk around and keep busy.”
Williams can recall being about that nervous on these hallowed grounds. It was back in 1997, when she was making her Wimbledon debut as a teen and didn’t make it out of the first round.
“I think I was so nervous in my first match here, it was a total disaster,” she recalled Williams, who lost in three sets to Magdalena Gryzbowska of Poland. “Poor young V.”
Oh, how times have changed.
Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer
8:40 a.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.
This article was originally published at 8:30 a.m.