Rome Premier 2019: Karolina Pliskova denies Johanna Konta to grab No2 ranking
Briton Johanna Konta, former world No4, will rise back to 24 with runner-up finish in her biggest final in two years
Rome has not been a happy hunting ground for British women in recent years. The last champion? Virginia Wade back in 1971.
That in itself put the achievement of Johanna Konta—a former world No4 but currently down at 42 after a difficult year for both her results and her confidence—into some very positive context.
For clay, even when Konta hit her personal heights in 2017, had never been a rewarding environment for the Briton.
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, survived a three-setter against rising star Marketa Vondrousova, and beat Kiki Bertens, Madrid champion, in an impressive three sets and almost three hours.
It was Konta’s 10th win on clay this season, compared with a career-long seven main-draw wins on the surface. Her clay credentials had been tested and had survived, and in the process, she had put herself back inside the top 30, and in time to grab a seeding at the up-coming French Open.
But could she take one more step to win her first title in two years? Konta faced another formidable task against the tall powerhouse, the former No1, Karolina Pliskova: It meant the Briton was after a second top-five victory in two days, having had none since beating Simona Halep at Wimbledon in 2017.
The Czech, who had already hit 30 aces on her way to the final, had won five of the pair’s six completed matches, though the Briton won their most recent one on the hard courts of Beijing in 2016.
Also a factor in Rome was the amount of tennis played by each woman. Konta had dropped three sets en route to the final, while Pliskova has dropped just two, and the Czech had played one match less courtesy of a first-round bye. That amounted to almost three more hours on court for the Briton.
What is more, Pliskova had not faced a seed all week, while Konta has beaten No7 Stephens and No6 Bertens, along with the unseeded Williams.
On another damp and overcast day in Rome, then, the task for Konta was tough, and that showed in a swift 36-minute first set, a set in which Konta began slowly and firing too many errors, while Pliskova was serving up a storm, with 86 percent of first deliveries in the box. She was zoned in on return, too, to break immediately.
Then Pliskova threatened in the eighth game, but Konta held off set point for 3-5. She even had the chance of a break back in the ninth, but hit an easy smash into the net, and Pliskova did not offer another chance, 6-3.
Konta’s error count was up to 12, but her usual baseline strikes and drop shots were not balancing out the errors with the winners.
Konta dug in to save a break point in the opening game of the second set, and the two players remained locked at 3-3, with neither woman able to take an advantage in the cool and heavy conditions.
But then Konta faced a huge test in the seventh game, an eight-minute tussle of four break points, saved time and again by Konta at the baseline. But at the fourth time of asking, Pliskova took the initiative, came forward, and dominated the net for a winner and the break, 4-3.
Konta had a glimmer of a chance in the next game, closing down Pliskova from 40-0 to deuce, but when push came to shove, the Czech serve saved the day, 5-3. Konta forced her to serve it out, too, and then saved two match points before Pliskova sealed the deal to claim her second title of the year, and her first on clay, 6-4.
The victory takes Pliskova to No2 in the world, and thus No2 seed at the French Open next week. And despite the loss, Konta can also be very happy with her progress this week, up to No26. As she said afterwards:
“I’m super pleased in general with how I’ve been progressing this year. To make a final here, my biggest since Miami, is special. I’ve really enjoyed my week here.”
And she was not exaggerating, she stressed: “I come to Rome for my holidays: I really do love this city!”
She will love it even more now.