French Open 2019: Johanna Konta reaches first QF in Paris, but Williams and Osaka make their exits
Johanna Konta is through to the quarter-finals of the French Open in Paris for the first time in her career
The first week at Roland Garros began with a clutch of women able to reach No1 by the end of the tournament. And all of them, arguably, had a shot at winning the title.
Currently residing in the top spot, Naomi Osaka had not lost a Major match since the third round of Wimbledon last summer. In Paris, she was going for her third consecutive Major—and the last woman to succeed in winning three-in-a-row was none other than the mighty Serena Williams.
Osaka scored some decent wins on clay, but was knocked back by a hand injury during the Rome Premier. It showed in two tough early matches in Paris, where she lost the opening set before turning things around—though in fairness, she drew a very tough quarter, including the formidable Victoria Azarenka in the second round.
In the event, all the potential No1 contenders fell away: Petra Kvitova withdrew with injury, and Angelique Kerber, also struggling with injury problems, lost in the first round. No4 seed Kiki Bertens, who won the prestigious Madrid tournament, feel ill before her second-round match and had to retire, and the last woman targeting No1, Karolina Pliskova, who arrived in Paris with the Rome title, lost to Petra Martic in the third round.
So with the No1 certain to stay in the same hands, who were now the favourites for the title?
Well it would not be Osaka, who lost in just an hour and a quarter, 6-4, 6-2, to the 42-ranked Katerina Siniakova. She had been, she admitted, nervous from the very first round, and completed her stay here with:
“Definitely I think this tournament I have had a feeling that was different to every other Grand Slam that I have played, because usually I find it very freeing and fun, and this time around I was kind of tense the entire time… I don’t want to say I feel depressed… So I would just say I’m very disappointed in how I played, and I wish I could have done better.”
And it would not be three-time former champion and No10 seed Serena Williams, who was scheduled for a quarter-final showdown with Osaka. Williams was lacking match-play and form ahead of the French Open: indeed she had played only nine matches, winning seven, this year, and withdrew from her last two events, Miami and Rome, with knee injury.
After losing to Sofia Kenin, the 35-ranked 20-year-old who received a walk-over win in her previous match, Williams said:
“I’m just pretty far away [from optimal condition], but the optimistic part is I haven’t been able to be on the court as much as I would have. That’s OK—at least I can start trying to put the time in now.
“I’m definitely feeling short on matches, and just getting in the swing of things. I don’t really like playing out points when I practise. So maybe I’ll jump in and get a wildcard on one of these grass court events and see what happens.”
So all at once, then, the top quarter has opened up. Siniakova is into her first Major fourth round, and will play No14 seed Madison Keys, semi-finalist last year. Kenin, into the fourth round of a Major for the first time anywhere, will play No8 seed Ashleigh Barty who, before this year, had won just two matches in five visits to Roland Garros.
But the stand-out favourite now in the top half of the draw is No3 seed Simona Halep, defending champion and runner-up here on two further occasions. She reached the Madrid final, and although she lost early in Rome, that left her with plenty in reserve. She needed those reserves in the early rounds, two three-setters, before coming good against her first seed, No27 seed Lesia Tsurenko, a 6-2, 6-1 trouncing.
She shares her quarter with two talented teenagers and a qualifier—it is hard not to see her making at least the semi-finals, and it would surprise few if she reached another final.
But the bottom half of the draw has written a very different story, particularly in the quarter vacated by Bertens.
Sloane Stephens, No7, has tasted Major victory, and was runner-up in Paris last year. But she was lined up against former champion Garbine Muguruza, and although the powerful Spaniard was ranked just 19, the former No1 was running into fine form. Indeed she came through No9 Elina Svitolina for the loss of just six games.
This was, without doubt, a block buster of a match. They have one win apiece; Muguruza has played 26 Majors, reaching the quarters seven times; Stephens has 29 Major appearances and five quarters. Muguruza has five titles, Stephens, six; and they are separated by a sliver in both clay and Major wins.
But the other match in this strong quarter featured the lone Briton remaining in the draw, Johanna Konta. Never before had she won a match at the French Open, but she arrived here after final runs in Rome and Rabat and was thus among the top players here in clay wins, 13 of them.
She had played her next opponent, Donna Vekic, six times before, and the Croat had shared their wins, 3-3, with two of their contests very tight indeed. Vekic had also won their last two meetings. But they had never played on clay, and while Konta had twice reached Major semi-finals, Vekic was yet to get beyond the fourth round at any.
And that form—especially on clay over the last month or so—shone through in a confident, attacking match from Konta.
In the blistering hot midday sun on Suzanne Lenglen, both women struggled to hold serve in the early stages, but Konta was the first to hold, 3-1, and she broke again in the seventh game. Vekic, returning with depth and variety of angle, pressed hard for a break back in the eighth—one of them offered up by a double fault—but Konta held with an ace, 6-2.
The Briton was showing great focus, and continued to serve well. What is more, she was starting to pull off drop shots, and following her big serves with swing-volley winners.
By 3-3, however, there was nothing between them, no break chances, not a gap in their defences, but Konta had stacked up 20 winners. Then in quick succession, each woman got a break, Konta first, then Vekic. However, the Briton broke again, and this time did not waver: a love hold and she had the match, 6-4, and her first place in the quarters of the French Open.
The win could take her back into the top 20, depending on a few results from other players in the draw. But make no mistake, her next match will be a tough one, against the winner from that Muguruza-Stephens showdown. However, the Briton has a 2-1 lead over the first, though all three of their matches have gone to three sets. And she has a 2-0 lead over Stephens, most recently a comeback win en route to the Rome final.
No wonder she has barely stopped smiling since she came through her first win here. Konta has a very real chance of becoming the first British woman to reach the French semis since Jo Durie in 1983. She said of the Vekic win:
“We’ve had a number of great battles and I actually lost the last two times we played together. It’s the first time we played on clay, and I knew that I had the game to beat her, but she also has the game to be able to beat me, so when I came out here on court, I just really tried to do the best that I can, really keep a good perspective, see the good things I was doing, and enjoy playing against a great player.”
It so happens that, aside from Muguruza and Stephens, Konta sits in the half of the draw that hosts the winners of most clay matches this year.
The hugely talented teenager Marketa Vondrousova missed out on a seeding by a small margin: She came to Paris ranked 38. And with her fourth-round win over Anastasija Sevastova, 6-2, 6-0, she reached 13 wins on clay, a total of 26 wins since the start of the year, along with her first Major quarter-final.
Vondrousova will next play the woman who has notched up of the most clay wins so far this year, No31 seed Petra Martic, who beat her in the final of Istanbul back in April.
Martic won that meeting in three sets, and after beating Pliskova in the third round here, she took out Kaia Kanepi, 5-7, 6-2, 6-4, to reach her maiden Major quarter-final.
Jo Konta will next play Sloane Stephens, who beat Garbine Mugurua, 6-4, 6-3, in an hour an 40 minutes.