Wimbledon has been captivated by the story of 15-year-old Cori Gauff this year. And as exciting as it is to see a break-out star take her first steps, this Wimbledon has also been about one persisting veteran. Barbora Strycova, who played her first Wimbledon in 2003 – the year before Gauff was born, needed 52 attempts in Grand Slams before making the semi-finals.
The Czech brought all her experience and guile into play as she dismantled the challenge of Johanna Konta, the last surviving Brit in singles, in front of her adoring home crowd. Strycova fought back from a 1-4 deficit in the opening set to script a 7-6(5), 6-1 victory in Tuesday’s quarter-finals and book her place in the last four of a major for the very first time.
“I am 33 and I try to enjoy every moment,” Strycova had said before taking on Konta. “Every match I win is a bonus. So I'm looking at it this way, and it really helps me not to put so much pressure on myself. I enjoy it even.”
Having said that this could be her last Wimbledon before the start of the tournament, Strycova set about slicing through her quarter of the draw. Konta was the fourth-seeded player she knocked out – she beat 32nd seed Lesia Tsurenko in the first round, fourth seed Kiki Bertens in the third and 21st seed Elise Mertens in the fourth round, on her way to her best Wimbledon finish so far.
It has been quite a journey for the battling Czech, who, in 2013, tested positive for stimulant sibutramine. She defended that she had unknowingly ingested it as it was a component of a slimming aid she was on, but Strycova was banned for six months and her results during that period erased from the record books. But the player returned stronger, making the quarter-finals at Wimbledon in 2014, her best Grand Slam result before Tuesday. In 2017, she peaked to her career best ranking of 16.
Primarily a doubles player, she is World No 3 in that field, the Czech brings a different skillset and outlook to the court. Over the years, though she didn’t quite make it to the business end of majors, she has proved to be one of those dangerous floaters in the draw. Much like her doubles partner Su-wei Hsieh, with whom she reached the women’s doubles quarter-finals at Wimbledon later on Tuesday. Strycova has ousted players like Maria Sharapova, Garbine Muguruza (thrice), Angelique Kerber, Caroline Wozniacki and put Chinese star Li Na into retirement during her 2014 run.
Even so, Strycova was quite an unknown entity for the 15,000-strong Centre Court crowd, who had walked in hoping to see Konta continue her march towards glory. It may be possible that most didn’t know the correct way to pronounce Strycova’s name (it’s Strits-ova) and the most-famous export from her hometown Plzen is the beer.
The way she started, it looked like Konta would easily equal her best result at the home Slam so far – a semi-final two years ago. But Konta taking out former major winners Petra Kvitova and Sloane Stephens in the previous rounds had raised the expectations, and hopes, of seeing a British ladies champion for the first time since Virginia Wade in 1977. Konta has been one of the strongest servers in the competition, having lost her serve only thrice in 47 games in the first four rounds.
The Australia-born Konta, seeded 19th, jumped to a 4-1 lead in the fourth set and looked too strong for her opponent at that point. While Strycova may not have powerful groundstrokes, she has an admirable defence, a smart tennis brain, and a wicked double-handed forehand slice, which she used time and again to unsettle Konta. Despite her opponents’ serving prowess, the Czech was putting in more than 90 percent of her returns back into play.
With Srycova constantly changing the angles, spin and speed on the ball, it was difficult for Konta to get into hitting rhythm. The Brit is great at absorbing and redirecting pace, as we saw in the match against Kvitova, but Strycova didn’t give her any, making Konta generate all the power and pace. Once World No 54 Strycova settled into the match, she beguiled Konta with her variety
It has been the best summer of Konta’s career, as she made the second week of the French Open as well as Wimbledon for the very first time. But like at French Open, when she had crumbled against 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova in the semis, Konta felt the pressure of starting out as the ‘favourite’ against Strycova. She made 22 unforced errors in the first set, and 34 overall to make life difficult for herself.
“I couldn't quite find the level that I needed to make it difficult and challenging for the kind of player she is,” Konta said. “She's a very difficult player to play on this surface, and in general. She's a very good player. It's just unfortunate I couldn't quite find the level needed to come through.”
The experienced Czech, meanwhile, didn’t let up the pressure. Strycova hit 22 winners against only nine unforced errors through the match and had Konta on a string. Once she broke Konta’s serve in the second game of the second set for a 2-0 lead, Strycova knew she had her opponent. The Czech broke Konta’s serve twice in the set but didn’t face a single break point herself. The Brit, a bundle of nerves by the end of the set, sealed her fate by sending a forehand long on match point.
“I think this was one of the best matches I have played,” said Strycova, her career possibly on the last legs. Not a bad time to peak, given that she faces Serena Williams next.
Updated Date: Jul 10, 2019 11:26:35 IST