Rome 2019

Rome Premier 2019: Johanna Konta into biggest final in two years, as clay surge claims Bertens

Johanna Konta is through to the final of the Rome Premier WTA event after beating Kiki Bertens

Johanna Konta
Johanna Konta (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Championships)

So would the weather be kind during the concluding weekend of competition at the Foro Italico in Rome?

Half an hour before Kiki Bertens and Johanna Konta were scheduled to play their semi-final, it did not look that way: the covers went on, they came off, they went on again. But against the odds, the two women took to court soon after their allotted midday time.

Not that the conditions were easy: there was a blustering breeze, cool temperature interspersed with fleeting sun-and-shadow, and a still damp, uneven court.

And it was an intriguing match-up between two women who had found such good form during the clay swing.

That form was less of a surprise for Bertens. Six of her nine titles had come on clay, and she was fresh from a semi-final finish in Stuttgart and an outstanding run to the Madrid title via Simona Halep, Sloane Stephens and Petra Kvitova, without dropping a set. And such were her clay credentials that if she claimed the Rome title come Sunday, she would rise to No2 in the world in time to claim the No2 seeding at Roland Garros.

Despite her schedule-heavy weeks, though, she had been helped by a first-round bye in Rome, plus an extra day off courtesy of Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal. And she boasted one final killer stat: Since the start of 2016, Bertens had won more matches on clay than any other woman, 70 of them.

In contrast, Konta’s success on clay was not a regular feature. In Madrid, she had only ever won one match, at Roland Garros she had won none at all, and in Rome, until this year, she had never got beyond the third round.

In 2019, though, she arrived in Italy after reaching her first clay final in Rabat last month, and once in Rome, she beat both Venus Williams and Sloane Stephens on the same day to reach her first Premier clay quarter-final, and survived a three-setter against rising star Marketa Vondrousova to set perhaps her biggest clay test thus far.

For in Bertens, Konta faced the woman who had won their most recent contest, in Indian Wells this year, a woman who was up to 26 wins for the season, 12 of them on clay. She was, in short, a real test of just how far Konta’s clay tennis had come.

Bertens opened with an ace, and held with ease, but Konta took longer to settle. She mixed her aggressive winners with too many errors, and had to save a break point in the second game.

It was a similar story in the third game, deuce for Bertens, but Konta was over-striking, and then a shanked error on break point in the fourth gave the Dutch woman the break, 3-1.

The wind was already playing its part, taking hold of the ball just enough to affect the women’s timing. The Briton had made 10 errors in just four games, but now it was Bertens turn to make the errors, and Konta broke straight back.

The Briton had to bring some different tactics to the table, and she broke out her increasingly successful drop-shot, and then pulled off a fine volley winner to hold. Another drop caught out Bertens, who crashed to the ground, but the Dutch woman shook off the moment, and made a gutsy hold, 4-3.

It was hard to split them—each had 34 points on the board, both were playing with aggression and power, and mixing things up with the occasional net winner. The Dutch woman countered deuce, a foot-fault call and a double fault with three aces to make it 6-5: It was up to Konta to take it to a tie-break.

However, a 21st error, a forehand wide, brought up two set points for Bertens. Another forehand just long, and Konta was down a set, 7-5, after more than an hour of play.

The second set would take another hour of intense baseline rallies boasting angles and down-the-line passes. They began with an exchange of breaks, then after a six-minute delay to attend to a member of the crowd, they edged towards another crucial 12th game with little to choose between them.

Konta had a fleeting chance to break in the seventh game but found the net with a drop shot, but she would have to wait until the 11th game to draw errors and a double fault from Bertens for the break. Konta served it out, 7-5.

Yet again, the two exchanged breaks early on, with Konta unable to solidify her fleeting 3-1 lead. But she now looked the more assured, more calm player, while Bertens grew increasingly edgy with a growing number of errors. The Briton got her reward from a cracking backhand down-the-line winner to break for 5-2, and after seeing 40-0 become deuce, finally served out the win, 6-2, after two and three-quarter hours.

This impressive win takes Konta to her biggest final since winning the Miami Premier Mandatory in 2017—the season in which she went on to reach the semis at Wimbledon and rise to No4 in the ranks—and it notches up her first top-five win since beating Halep during that semi Wimbledon run.

The Briton marked her 28th birthday yesterday, but the celebrations will continue as she heads from 42 in the ranks to the mid-20s. Her final hurdle will be either Karolina Pliskova or Maria Sakkari, the latter being the woman to deny Konta in the Rabat final.

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