A talented newcomer rising through the ranks usually relies on a unique tool to defeat her higher-ranked opponents. Some unleash a barrage of raw power to take the racquet out of their opponents’ hands (think Jelena Ostapenko or Garbine Muguruza). And some turn into human wallboards, making it impossible for the opponents to hit past them (think Sloane Stephens).
For 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, her weapon of choice is the ability to surprise. She doesn’t seem all that threatening with her pace of shot off the ground, but then in the middle of a rally she’ll suddenly throw in a perfectly-disguised drop which nobody saw coming. Or she will keep hitting crosscourt forehands all day, before randomly unfurling a down-the-line strike so unexpected that the opponent doesn’t even bother chasing it.
It seems to be a strategy that would leave her at the mercy of bigger hitters, and yet it is Vondrousova who’s been the one showing no mercy at this year’s Roland Garros. Through the first four rounds she hasn’t dropped a set, and hasn’t even been taken to a tiebreaker. Two of the eight sets she’s won have been bagels too; that’s as dominant a performance as anyone could have possibly imagined for a teenager making her first serious run at a Slam.
The Czech has been building up to this since the start of the year. Although she exited early at the Australian Open, she reached the final of her very next event, in Budapest. That was followed by her breakthrough tournament at Indian Wells, where she defeated Daria Kasatkina, Jelena Ostapenko and Simona Halep in succession before bowing out in three sets to Elina Svitolina.
Two more premier-level quarterfinals, in Miami and Rome, accompanied by another runner-up finish, in Istanbul, gave us enough indication that she meant business. For good measure, she defeated all of her three big-name Indian Wells victims again in that run; her second win over Halep in particular was what caught everyone’s eye, coming as it did on Halep’s favorite surface in Rome.
In Paris, Vondrousova has done more than catch people’s eye. She has teased and goaded and outplayed her opponents without ever looking unruffled or over-excited, making us wonder whether she’s really 19. In the battle of the teenage phenoms that was the second round encounter between her and Anastasia Potopova, the difference in composure of the two 19-year-olds couldn’t be more obvious.
While Potapova was all fire and brimstone, riding high on the adrenaline rush of her first-round win over Angelique Kerber, Vondrousova was patient and smart with her point-construction. The result: 33 unforced errors by Potapova to just 13 for Vondrousova, and a wipeout in the second set.
That Vondrousova is different from the other members of her age group is fairly evident by now. She is a speedy counterpuncher by nature but has a good serve, and doesn’t look to win points by merely outlasting her opponents. Her typically hooked lefty topspin forehand helps her create sharp crosscourt angles, and her down-the-line forehand is tough to read. She also uses the slice liberally in addition to the drop shot, and her expertly-timed lobs have left many an opponent shaking her head in resignation.
A rally against Vondrousova isn’t a cookie-cutter rally by any stretch of the imagination. Much like her fellow teenager Bianca Andreescu, Vondrousova has molded her game to counter the consistent baseline game of modern power hitters – with similarly entertaining results.
Against Sevastova in the fourth round, Vondrousova didn’t have to bring out her best to get the win – but she brought it nevertheless. The Latvian was clearly suffering from the effects of her marathon third rounder against Elise Mertens, and was slow in reacting to many of Vondrousova’s wrong-footing shots. The match looked like a foregone conclusion right from the start.
Call it the exuberance of youth: her opponent’s struggles did nothing to dim the intensity of the Czech. Instead of taking it easy she put on an exhibition of everything she does well, and the drop shots got more out of reach with every passing game. By the end she had Sevastova on a string, and the spectators in a thrall.
Vondrousova’s first ever Major quarterfinal will be against a player who is also making her quarterfinal debut – Petra Martic. That automatically suggests it is a winnable match for the 19-year-old; in fact, considering the way she has played so far, some might even say Vondrousova is the favorite. Will that bring a change in her approach, and perhaps make her nervous for the first time this tournament?
You get the feeling that it will make little difference, and that she will put up a good show irrespective of whether she wins or loses. It’s hard to remember the last time she went down without a fight (she certainly hasn’t done that in 2019); Vondrousova is proving to be the very definition of a tough out.
But even if she does collapse, it would be far from a disaster. Vondrousova has already shown maturity well beyond her years, and should be allowed to act her age every once in a while.
She has plenty of time to learn how to deal with the big-stage jitters anyway – her kind of composure is built for long-term success, and multiple Grand Slam quarterfinals at the very least.
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Updated Date: Jun 02, 2019 20:06:12 IST