French Open 2019: Johanna Konta into first Roland Garros semi after flawless Sloane Stephens victory
Coach Zavialoff says: “I can’t promise a player they will win a Grand Slam. What I will say is, she will be tough to beat.”
It is little more than a month ago that the British No1 Johanna Konta was ranked 47 in the world. That was in the aftermath to her bold and ultimately rewarding fight in Fed Cup in London, and before she switched to clay.
Her results through the hot hard-court swing in the early months of 2019 were not hugely profitable, which made her two comeback wins at the Copper Box in London all the more uplifting.
Yet Konta’s results on clay have never been as good as on other surfaces—and she has been a semi-finalist at both the Australian Open and at Wimbledon. At the French Open, for example, she had never won a match in fur previous visits.
However this year, the former world No4 began to turn the tide in what had been a confidence-sapping slip in form on the red dirt.
She arrived in Paris having reached the final in Rabat and then the final in the big Rome Premier that leads the tour to Roland Garros. There, she beat both Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens, both from a set down, in a display of determination, focus, and not a little physical resilience and endurance. And it took her into the seedings in Paris, ranked 26.
And here she has flourished, combining dominant victories with gutsy three-set efforts. She beat the dangerous No23 seed Donna Vekic for the loss of just six games, and edged Lauren Davis, 6-3, 1-6, 6-3. And it had taken her through four victories to her first Major quarter-final since that semi run at Wimbledon in 2017. And that put her within touching distance of a 36-year-old record—the last time a British woman reached the semis at Roland Garros was Jo Durie in 1983.
Konta is not one to look too far ahead, but naturally many others have, and to a possible contest with last year’s runner-up and No7 seed Sloane Stephens. And supporters have been looking forward with plenty of confidence, because Konta has beaten the American in both previous meetings, both this year, the last of them in that final run in Rome. That last victory was particularly impressive, a two and a half hour comeback after losing the first-set tie-break.
But what has brought about Konta’s transformation on clay? It may be no coincidence that she began working with new coach Dimitri Zavialoff at the end of last season, nor that she has begun to work with sports psychologist Lorenzo Beltrame. For it is no secret how much Konta was helped with her confidence by Juan Coto, who died suddenly a couple of years ago.
Zavialoff has coached both Stan Wawrinka and Timea Bacsinszky in the past, and has made a feature of not taking advantage of the WTA rule that allows coaching on court. In a press conference ahead of Konta’s quarter-final match, he explained his thinking.
“I never came on court [to coach]. I have my own idea of what confidence is, it’s a way to show my player that I am confident in what she will do. And no matter if her choices are good, I am supporting it. And when a decision comes from the player, it is more valuable than if it’s reproducing something that someone is telling them.”
This self-sufficiency, and the confidence it has built, has been increasingly evident in recent months. She has indeed resolved difficult problems in a match—coming from behind in particular—and has embraced a more aggressive approach that takes advantage of her big serve and forehand. In her Fed Cup tie, she came to the net, she threw in drop shots, and she started winning.
But the bottom line, as far as Zavialoff is concerned, is his own belief in his player.
“I think she was always a good player, I would even say a fantastic player. That is what I keep telling her. I knew something would happen since I’ve been working with her, and whether it would happen on clay or after, I didn’t know—and it did on clay.”
Can she, then, win a Major? He smiled:
“I can’t tell a player, or promise a player, they will win a grand slam. What I will say is, she will be tough to beat.”
Unusually, Konta is ranked second in clay match-wins this year, 14 of them—one behind another of the quarter-finalists, Petra Martic. So did Stephens have the answers this time?
Konta came under strong pressure in her opening game, four deuces, one break point, eight minutes, but she held.
Stephens made an easier hold, but come the fourth game, Konta’s pace and range had kicked in, and she broke at the second attempt, 3-1.
She came through deuce for another hold, 4-1 up after 24 minutes, and then broke to 15 with some sizzling return-of-serve winners, now up 11 winners in the match, 5-1 ahead. On serve, she made 40-0 with an ace, and closed it out with a big forehand, 6-1, in just 33 minutes.
Konta had won 13 of her 15 three-set matches this year, including that win over Stephens in Rome. Would she be faced with a similar task now? It seemed not.
The Briton started the second set in similar form, earning a first break point when a huge ball skipped off the Stephens baseline. The American survived it, and two deuces, but Konta broke at the next time of asking, and held to love.
It began to look as though Stephens was lacking in energy—she afterwards asserted that she had felt fine—but she did get on the board with a hold in the third game, her first game in a run of seven.
Yet Konta remained in control, and held to love in style, with three straight winners—one a drive volley, two off the forehand—for 4-2.
And so it went: Another love hold for 5-3, and she served it out, 6-4, in an hour and 11 minutes.
It had been as convincing a win as she has played at Roland Garros this year—a compliment in itself—and made Stephens look slow and off the pace. The Briton had made 25 winners to just 12 by the American, and made only 13 unforced errors. Her serve topped out at 109kph, and she dropped only five points in 38 first serves.
It deservedly earned her a third Major semi-final, and equalled that Durie run of 1983. Little wonder she was proud. She told the enthusiastic crowd:
“To play on this new Chatrier, to be out here and play one of the best players in the world, and play at the level I did, I am really proud of myself.”
She went on to admit to ITV:
“It was a great performance. I was really pleased with the level I played. I accepted my opponent could raise her level and knew it was going to be difficult. I’m just really pleased.
“Each match, I’ve been building, not just here but in the tournaments preceding. Overall I am really enjoying my tennis.”
And it shows. Next up is either Martic or 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova, both of them at career-highs this week. The former leads their head-to-head 4-0, but Vondrousova has posted 25-5 figures since the Australian Open, the most on the women’s tour this season.
Konta’s last match against Martic, back in 2015, was a 7-6(5) 6-7(3) 6-3 win, and it was a similar story against Vondrousova, a 6-3, 3-6, 6-1 win—only that one was just a couple of weeks ago in Rome.
In theory, then, Konta has a great chance of taking her biggest step yet, into a Major final. That it could come on clay is the surprise here—not that Zavialoff has ever doubted it.
19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova will take on Konta in the semi-finals, after beating Petra Martic, 7-6(1), 7-5.