French Open 2019: Teenager Vondrousova denies Konta her first Major final; will meet Barty in final
Konta: There is nothing for me to be disappointed in or upset about. I lost a tennis match, but I also won five
When the 2019 edition of the French Open got underway a little under two weeks ago, there were probably very few who predicted that Johanna Konta and Marketa Vondrousova would be two of the last four standing.
Between them, they had scored just one win on the red clay of Roland Garros, and that was by the then 17-year-old Czech Vondrousova in 2017.
And yet a look at their form during the run-in to Paris showed that each had been putting together some good results, and particularly on clay.
Little more than a month ago, Konta was ranked 47 in the world, but after a confidence boosting, tie-winning performance in Fed Cup in London, the switch to clay brought a distinct turn around.
Remarkably, she entered the season with just seven main-draw clay wins to her name across her entire resume. By the time she took to court on a damp Friday in Paris to play her first French Open semi-final, she was top of the leaderboard for clay wins in 2019, 15 of them.
That followed a final run in Rabat and then the final in the big Rome Premier, where she beat both Sloane Stephens and Kiki Bertens 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. A repeat win over Stephens, conceding only five games, took her through five victories to her first Major semi-final since Wimbledon 2017.
And it made her the first British woman to reach the semis of Roland Garros since Jo Durie in 1983, with the chance of becoming the first British woman to reach the final since Sue Barker in 1976.
But in her way was the impressive, left-handed teenager, who stands a modest 5ft 6in tall, but who had won more matches since the Australian Open than any other woman, 26 for five losses. After quarter-final finishes in both Indian Wells and Miami, she switched to clay and reached the final in Istanbul and the quarters in Rome.
Against top-30 players in 2019, Vondrousova had 11 wins from 13 matches, including two victories over Simona Halep, and she was yet to concede a set in Paris, despite putting out three seeds.
Ranked 38, she was now close to breaking the top 20, and with a game of variety, speed, touch and quality. Could that game disrupt the focus, power and precision of Konta, whose serve, forehand and evolving drop shot had rarely wavered?
Vondrousova did have one win over Konta, in Indian Wells this year, but in Rome, in conditions much closer to those at Roland Garros, Konta had got the upper hand, albeit in three sets.
And would the weather play a part? Already it was three days since the two women had played their quarter-finals. With the rain washing out the top-half matches on Wednesday, the semi-finals were postponed by a day, and to a day that promised rain. The air was heavy, the courts damp, and that could defuse the power of the Briton.
However, as the two women took to court, the clouds cleared just a little and some watery sun lit up the orange court in the beautiful surroundings of the court-in-the-garden, Simonne-Mathieu.
The younger woman, perhaps unsurprisingly, began nervously: two double faults contributed to a love break to Konta.
The first sign that weather would play a part here came in the very next game, as a gusty wind picked up clouds of red dust from the court. It did not disrupt the Briton’s flow, a love hold, 2-0.
However, the teenager held in the third game and then hit hard at Konta’s serve, five deuces, four break chances, and Vondrousova began to exchange points at the net. A double fault from the Briton, and Vondrousova had the break back.
Konta has shown patience and determination throughout this fortnight, and her ever-improving backhand pulled off another break, 4-2 and again for 5-3. Vondrousova faced three set points, the first courtesy of a fine volley from Konta, yet the teenager resisted, and two over-eager volley errors from Konta missed her chance.
Serving for the set, then, it was Konta who tightened up, Vondrousova broke, and held with a volley-lob combo 6-5. The pressure was firmly on the Briton, and sure enough a backhand wide offered up set point. The Czech made another lob winner to take first blood, 7-5.
Konta got off to another good start in the second set, though there was drizzle in the air and the wind was chill. She broke in the third game and held for 3-1, and came through a deuce game with a backhand winner, 5-3.
But there would be an almost identical turn-around from Vondrousova, first a love hold, and then an attack at the net to work a break chance. Konta double-faulted for the break without even earning a set-point.
Vondrousova made another love hold to take the lead, but this time Konta took it to a tie-break. However, the Briton never led, and a running forehand pass from the Czech for 5-2 left her to serve it out, 7-6(2), with a drop-shot winner.
It had been a highly mature performance, deserving huge credit for the Czech, after saving three set points in the first set and coming back from a break down in the second. It means she has still to drop a set in the tournament, and makes the 19-year-old the first teenager to reach the final at Roland Garros in 12 years.
Konta, for her part, masked her disappointment well, focusing, as is her habit, on the positives:
“I’m not sure what there is to linger or fester [on]. I wouldn’t say I had a good tournament, I had a great tournament. I think I had a lot of really amazing experiences this fortnight.
“There is nothing for me to be disappointed in or upset about. I mean, I lost a tennis match, but I also won five. I can only take the good things from that. Because even today, I lost the match, but I did the best that I could and I’m proud of that effort. I’m proud of that achievement in itself. So I can only look forward to playing at Wimbledon and the tournaments before that.”
Taking a broad view, she is certainly right: To go from zero to five in the space of one Roland Garros is a huge step forward, and she now has her favourite surface just over the horizon. Before that, she will also rise back to around 18 in the world.
As for Vondrousova, she now plays No8 seed Ashleigh Barty, who beat the other teenager in the final four, 17-year-old Amanda Anisimova, 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-3.
In the opener, Barty had raced to a 5-0 lead in 14 minutes, but the youngster went on a tear to level the match for a tie-breaker, and stormed that, too.
Barty hit back in the second, winning it in under half an hour, and closed out the win to reach her first Major final and rise to No3 in the rankings.