French Open 2019: Johanna Konta carries weight of British history in semi-final clash against giant-killer Marketa Vondrousova

At only 19, Marketa Vondrousova has been having quite the “vondrous” run of form. One of the youngest players in the top-100, the Czech teen has taken some strong wins this year, and been consistent since the beginning of the year. With a lacklustre start at the Australian Open, the 19-year-old nevertheless picked up the pace quickly, making the finals in Hungary. She followed that up with back-to-back quarter-finals at Indian Wells and Miami, and put up a valiant fight against Johanna Konta at the quarters of the Italian Open.

 French Open 2019: Johanna Konta carries weight of British history in semi-final clash against giant-killer Marketa Vondrousova

Johanna Konta celebrates her win over Sloane Stephens at the French Open. Reuters

Johanna Konta, on the other hand, has had a clay run that came seemingly out of nowhere, but has been nothing short of spectacular. At the French Open this year, she defeated the dangerous, in-form Donna Vekic quickly to move to the quarter-finals. There, Konta came up against one of the favourites to win the tournament, American Sloane Stephens, and she took control almost from the get-go. Playing a near-perfect game through the entirety of the match, Konta unleashed serve after serve with expert precision, putting her effective backhand to excellent use.

Barring a small scare against the USA’s Lauren Davis, Konta has not put a foot wrong in the tournament as she reaches its end stages. If there were ever a definition of being “in the zone”, she would likely define it.

Konta’s record against Vondrousova, as it stands, is firmly 50-50. The pair has met twice over the course of their careers — for the first time at Indian Wells last year, when the then-18-year-old Vondrousova came up victorious in a tough fight against the Briton. Their most recent match, played at the quarter-finals of the Rome Masters this year, went Konta's way, but not before Vondrousova troubled her enough to scalp a set off her rival.

Interestingly, neither Konta nor Vondrousova were most tennis watchers’ semi-final picks going into Roland Garros. Before this year, Konta was not much of a clay player, while this time last year, Vondrousova had made a few blips on the tennis circuit, but nothing noteworthy enough to consider her a clay-court specialist just yet.

The semi-final, for Konta, will be her third on as many surfaces — she made the semis at the Australian Open in 2016, losing to the eventual winner, Angelique Kerber, and in 2017 to runner-up Venus Williams.

Coming into the clay season as the 47th-ranked women’s singles player, Konta quickly ascended to 26th going into the French Open. At Roland Garros, where she had never progressed beyond Round 1 before, the British player dug deep to finish in the finals in Rabat, and then at the finals in Italy, en route to which she took out both Sloane Stephens and the in-form Kiki Bertens, who had won the title in Madrid only a week earlier.

This year, a seemingly much calmer player than she has been before, Konta has made some changes to her team. Towards the end of the 2018 season, the Briton ended her association with Michael Joyce, whom she had hired less than a year prior. He was replaced with Frenchman Dimitri Zavialoff, who became her permanent coach in the span of three weeks. For his part, Zavialoff comes with significant, big-name experience: the first ever coach of 2015 French Open winner and former World No 3 Stan Wawrinka, Zavialoff played a big part in the Swiss’ career, and continues to be involved with Swiss tennis from time to time.

The association with Wawrinka was a long and fruitful one for Zavialoff, who began training the Swiss at the age of 8, and worked with him for 17 years before the pair parted ways in 2010.

Crucially for Konta, Zavialoff has helped her transform her game. Once considered less mentally tough than others in the sport, the Konta of 2019 has looked confident, strong and convinced of her own game - and that has gone a long way in helping the Briton find wins.

In addition, Konta has also been varying her shots more since joining forces with Zavialoff, coming up to the net more, and playing a more self-assured game than she has been known for.

That mental toughness and self-confidence will be crucial for Konta as she goes into her semi-final. Not since Andy Murray has Great Britain had another big tennis star to cheer on, and as their No 1 women’s player and the highest ranked Briton on tour, male or female, Konta has the added responsibility — or pressure — of the hopes of a nation on her shoulders.

Once unsure of her own skill, the Konta playing the French Open this year has been supremely unwavering in her self-belief. Like Andy Murray before her, she now has looming records people are hoping she will break. This year, she has been serene, almost zen-like, and transformed from the Jo Konta we have been used to.

Her rival, 19-year-old Vondrousova, took a number of big wins as a qualifier at the inaugural Ladies Open Biel/Bienne, defeating Kristyna Pliskova and Barbora Strycova en route to her first ever WTA title.

Ranked at 233 at the time she won her first title, Vondrousova will know a thing or two about what it means to play big matches against significantly more experienced players. For her part, she has looked calm and confident on court, and more than involved in every game; she took out three seeds en route to her semi-final, the first among them claycourt specialist Carla Suarez Navarro.

Vondrousova’s next casualty was Latvian Anastasija Sevastova, who gave Naomi Osaka a bit of trouble at the Australian Open this year. She followed that up with a win over the in-form Petra Martic, who made the semi-finals at the clay-court tournament in Charleston, before winning the title in Istanbul — incidentally having beaten Vondrousova there.

2019 has been a good year for Marketa Vondrousova, though; she began the year with a semi-final finish in the women’s doubles at the Australian Open; she lost the singles in Round 2 to her constant nemesis this season, Petra Martic.

At Indian Wells this year, the Czech ousted not one, but two French Open champions back to back, removing 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko and current World No 3 Simona Halep, each in three sets before putting up a battle against Elena Svitolina to exit.

Vondrousova’s claycourt prowess, however, should not come as a surprise. A former World No 1 in the juniors, the Czech was runner-up in the girls’ doubles at Roland Garros in 2014 with her American partner CiCi Bellis, and won the trophy the next year with Miriam Kolodziejova — also her trophy-winning partner at the Australian Open earlier that same year.

The Czech has quite the affinity for beating other claycourters, but interestingly, on hard courts. In addition to taking out Martic, Halep and more, Vondrousova also defeated claycourt dab-hand Kiki Bertens at the US Open last year. 2019 will mark the second time in her career that the 19-year-old has progressed to week two of a Major, but already she has shown gumption and maturity beyond her years.

Vondrousova plays to make an even bigger argument for just how much the WTA has transformed, while for Konta, it is the small matter of continuing to be a torchbearer for British women’s tennis. On Friday, she will play to be the first British woman in the finals since Sue Barker, who won the tournament in 1976. Konta, therefore, will carry not just her own hopes, but those of an entire country on her shoulders as she plays to be the first British female champion on the clay in over four decades.

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Updated Date: Jun 07, 2019 12:13:26 IST