French Open 2019: Johanna Konta's impressive clay form makes her first Briton in 36 years to reach quarter-finals

A few months ago, Johanna Konta would have been far down a list of names if you were to pick favourites for the French Open. The Briton’s return on clay this year has truly come out of nowhere; as things go, she had a particularly lacklustre start to the year after early exits in Sydney and Brisbane, before a second-round loss to Garbine Muguruza in Australia. Her best finish during the entirety of the hard-court season was a quarter-final finish in Mexico.

 French Open 2019: Johanna Kontas impressive clay form makes her first Briton in 36 years to reach quarter-finals

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

But come the clay season, and Konta kicked straight from second gear into fifth. Seeded seventh in Morocco, Konta proceeded to take some incredibly well-fought wins en route to the final, where she would eventually lose to the in-form Greek Maria Sakkari.

The Briton made yet another final on clay soon after, ending up runner-up to Karolina Pliskova at the Italian Open. Notably, she defeated Madrid title winner Kiki Bertens on the way.

Starting the clay season as World No 47, Konta has since moved up to No 26. This time at Roland Garros, barring a bit of a scare against the American Lauren Davis, Konta has barely put a foot wrong all week – and on Tuesday, against the clay-happy Sloane Stephens, who was the 2018 finalist Konta looked firmly in control from the get-go.

Until last year, Konta had never won a main draw match at the French Open. Last year, she lost her first round match to Yulia Putintseva in straight sets. That was not the case during Tuesday’s quarter-final.

Stephens, whose favourite surface is clay and who finished runner-up to Simona Halep here last year, has in contrast been stretched at Roland Garros this year. Despite being among the favourites to go deep into the tournament, Stephens has not had it as easy as predicted. Put up to a tough contest against Polona Hercog in the third round, Stephens had then frittered away two match points before coming back in the decider.

On Tuesday, the American had the opportunity to break in the very first game of the match. Down 30-40, though, a tenacious Konta unleashed her serve, which would stand her in good stead as the match progressed. Always one to stay near the baseline, she mixed things up a little with more play at the net that is characteristic of Konta. Her double-handed backhand, though not the most aesthetic of shots, got the job done for her.

Konta was in the driver’s seat for the entirety of the quarter-final tie. With a staggering 87 percent wins on her first serve, Konta hit six aces in the match - three of them within the first five games of the match. Stephens, for each time she looked even remotely threatening to the player on the other side of the net, was simply unable to build on it. With her British rival taking a double break to go up 5-1, there was very little Stephens could do as she attempted a couple of returns that went astray, and was unable – and refused – to chase down some brilliant serving.

Meanwhile, Konta’s service was flawless. With a powerful backhand and some exquisite cross-court forehand shots on full display, the World No 26 sent Stephens running across court. The second set saw improved tennis from the American, who, after being broken by Konta to open, held serve for the remainder of the set. But she was never to recover from that early break, much of which had to do with Konta’s flawless serve.

Stephens did look far better in the second set, which had less to do with poor tennis from her and more to do with Konta’s spin-heavy, fast serves sent across the court, down the line, and at a blistering pace. Stephens would, after the match, say that she found the court to be playing “fast”, which helped Konta.

Konta held four consecutive service games to love in the second, and was quite simply on another level to Stephens, and indeed to her own past self. For Stephens, however, the first set loss proved to be unrecoverable from. Despite wrangling back some control in the second, Stephens – who had already committed nine unforced errors in the first, could just not push enough to surpass Konta in Beast Mode.

The fact that she faced only one break point through the entirety of that match – which was finished in 70 minutes – ten minutes less than it took Stan Wawrinka and Stefanos Tsitsipas to play their second set, Jo Konta became the first British woman since Jo Durie in 1983 to make the semi-finals at Roland Garros.

With the win, Konta has now had semi-finals on all three Majors surfaces – hard court at the Australian Open in 2016, grass at Wimbledon in 2017, and on Tuesday, on clay. From the first game of the match, it was Konta’s to win - and win she did.

Konta will now play the winner of the in-form Petra Martic and teen Marketa Vondrousova, who was responsible for the ouster of 12th seed Anastasija Sevastova days ago. Now, the Sydney-born, British-playing ace is looking for another first; Sue Barker was the last British woman to win the French Open, in 1976. Now, Konta will be looking to end an over 40-year-long drought to bring the trophy to Britain yet again.

Given the form she was in and during the entirety of the clay season, Konta could well come up against tournament favourite and defending champion Simona Halep for the trophy. The Romanian is still the firm favourite to win, and this year dispatched Konta in straight sets in Madrid. But with Konta’s form, and the fact that she still firmly leads their head-to-head record, that is one battle all tennis watchers should look forward to.

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Updated Date: Jun 05, 2019 13:56:54 IST