Widely touted as the favourite in the semi-final, British No 1 Johanna Konta instead tumbled to 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, who outclassed her in straight sets to make her first ever Grand Slam final on Friday.
Konta went into the match under considerable pressure; the first British woman since Jo Durie to enter the semi finals at Roland Garros, Konta was also hoping to become the first British woman since Sue Barker in 1976 to make the final — and, like Barker did, win.
The 28-year-old had looked comfortable going into her quarter-final, and different from the jittery Konta of old.
On Friday, however, those nerves surfaced, and let her down when she needed most to have her wits about her. Despite her gaining good starts, her nerves once again proved to be a hurdle as she frittered away what seemed like significant leads to her younger rival.
Konta got off to a good start, breaking Vondrousova to start the match, then holding to love to follow up. But an active, moving, hard-hitting Vondrousova battled back to almost immediately break Konta right back.
Leading 5-3 in the first set, Konta missed three set points and proceeded to completely unravel, with Vondrousova, skilled beyond her years, unleashing a set of clinical lobs and drop shots that saw Konta put firmly — and quickly — on the back foot after being in quite the dominant position. The Czech used one of those lobs to go from being down 3-5 in Set 1 to close off the set entirely at 7-5.
Emotionally and tactically, Vondrousova seemed almost the polar opposite of her more experienced rival. Building some great points, the key to Vondrousova’s success lay in the fact that the 19-year-old held her nerve even when the opening set looked to be going firmly the way of her British opponent.
Striking the ball well, Vondrousova looked in good form on the day while Konta made some very heavy-handed shots — including a drop shot that did not go the way the Briton anticipated. The 28-year-old tried coming into the net more, with Vondrousova’s carefully crafted returns ensuring she outfoxed Konta at her own game.
At that point, Konta completely fell apart, with Vondrousova volleying beautifully to take three games back-to-back. For her part, the Briton committed a generous helping of unforced errors, helping hasten Vondrousova’s win at that set.
Konta finished the set with a staggering 20 unforced errors to 17 winners, and already visibly troubled by her young opponent. That stress would prove to be her undoing going into the second set as well, as she sent some wild backhands across the court early on. Gone was the calm, composed Konta who had played one of her most put-together matches against Sloane Stephens. The Konta of the semi-final, already rattled early on, continued her error-strewn game into Set 2, and Vondrousova hastened the pressure with a couple of great drop shots.
The Briton took a 2-1 lead and went up 3-2 in the second on serve, but still, somehow, played quite a patchy game. Up 4-3 on the break in the second, Konta was up 5-3 and looked to be cruising, well on her way to pushing and potentially winning a decider. But up at 40-0, she again gave Vondrusova an inch, and her 5-3 lead quickly went to a dead even 5-5, with Vondrousova unleashing an astonishing array of shots point-after-point, throwing everything at her rival. The pair engaged in a brilliant rally, with Vondrousova ending it with a searing drop shot.
The 26th seed’s error-strewn game continued well into the second; by the time they were nearing the tiebreak, Konta had committed a staggering 17 unforced errors to Vondrousova’s seven.
Already at the tiebreaks, it was looking bleak for the Briton; she had, until the semi-final, been 6-5 in tiebreakers in 2019. Vondrousova, on the other hand, went 6-0 in all tiebreakers she had faced in 2019. That number alone should indicate clearly just how cool-headed the teen can be.
For all of Konta’s nervousness, Vondrousova was the picture of calm, almost imperceptible in her emotions as she quickly went up 2-0 in the tiebreak. Konta tried to unleash her otherwise phenomenally effective cross-court backhand that served her so well at Roland Garros, but it was Vondrousova’s shot-making in this match that was quite simply far superior.
With a drop shot to go up 3-1 in the tiebreak, Vondrousova was perfect, and as it began drizzling at the venue, up 5-2 on her rival, the Czech unleashed an exquisite winner that Konta sent long. Up four match points against Konta, Vondrousova finished it in one.
Winning the first set after having been down 3-5 was big. For Vondrousova, she was down by that exact scoreline twice over — and for anyone else, perhaps even the 19-year-old herself, that might have meant a loss, or at the very least, a three-set match. But Vondrousova was almost like a lioness, lying in silent wait for its prey, and striking where it was likely to hurt most.
Konta should have won this match, and many may have argued it was hers to lose. But she was outplayed in every department on Friday — mentally and physically — by the 19-year-old, who really just had every shot in the book to throw at the British No 1 — something she did to great effect. Knowing what shot to use and where to use it, the Vondrousova — already having an excellent, giant-killing season — played a cool, collected game to make her first ever Grand Slam final.
Now, she takes on former doubles Grand Slam winner Ashleigh Barty, who has triumphed over her twice before, of both matches the pair have played. The two have never played on clay, however, and Vondrousova has had the better run on the soil this year.
Considering the precision with which Vondrousova played her semi-final, and the lack of nerves she showed on the way, the 19-year-old could well become the first Czech woman to win the French Open since Hana Mandlikova 38 years ago, and the first Czech since Ivan Lendl in 1987, to win the title at Roland Garros.
Whichever way the pendulum swings, the final promises to be a fighting contest.
Updated Date: Jun 08, 2019 00:04:43 IST