PARIS, June 4, 2019 (by Michael Dickens)
When Johanna Konta of Great Britain and No. 7 seed Sloane Stephens from the United States walked out on Court Philippe Chatrier Tuesday afternoon amid partially overcast skies and very heavy, humid conditions to start Day 10 of this year’s French Open, the British No. 1 arrived with a leveled win-loss record of 4-4 after beginning the Paris fortnight 0-4 in main draw appearances. Meanwhile, Stephens, at 24-7, had reached the fourth round or better in six of the last eight years, including last year’s final. One key stat, though, that many overlooked: the 26th-seeded Konta was 2-0 versus Stephens in head-to-head meetings, both earlier this year, when the Briton prevailed at both Brisbane and Rome. She knew in her mind what it would take to beat Stephens. And she went out and did it.
As it happened, Konta’s serve and return game were flawless. She fired on all cylinders, and there was little Stephens, the highest seed remaining in the bottom half of the draw, could do to change that. Konta marched her way to her third Grand Slam semifinal with a comprehensive 6-1, 6-4 win in just 71 minutes. The 28-year-old Konta became the first British woman in 36 years to reach the Roland Garros semifinals.
“This is my first match on the new Chatrier, and to play one of the best players in the world and to play at the level I did I feel really proud of myself,” Konta said during an on-court interview after her victory. “I’m just really happy that I got to enjoy this moment in front of all these people.”
Just how dominating was Konta? Consider this: she won 33 of 38 (86 percent) first-serve points, hit 25 winners – including six aces – and faced just one break point, during her first service game of the match, in which she held after four deuces. The only point Konta conceded on her serve in the second set came on a double fault as she served for the match. She broke Stephens three times in the process and won 41 percent of her receiving points compared to just 24 percent for the American.
“I definitely thought I played well behind my serve more than anything, and kept a good variety in there, which I think made it also difficult for Sloane to find her rhythm in those games,” Konta said during her press conference.
Stephens agreed with Konta’s assessment. “Obviously, she played well; she executed her game plan. She served really well,” Stephens said. “There is not much you can do when someone is playing like that. She definitely played her game today.”
Konta’s win matched compatriot Jo Durie’s 1983 semifinal run at Roland Garros, a Grand Slam in which British women don’t have a great history of success. The outcome guaranteed a new major finalist. In Thursday’s semifinal round, Konta will face either No. 31 seed Petra Martic or unseeded Marketa Vondrousova, either of whom would be making their debut in the last four of a Grand Slam.
In Konta’s road to the quarterfinals, she didn’t face any Top 20 players while Stephens came into the match with plenty of confidence after scoring a quality win over former World No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza. However, Konta needed just 32 minutes to win the first set, in which she reminded observers how one needn’t be the best-skilled clay-court player to win on clay. There were just two rallies that lasted more than nine shots – Konta won both of them – and the average rally length was under four shots. Konta’s efficient serving and solid returns scored points at will for her.
With a quick break at the start of the second set, Konta not only was winning points on both her first and second serves, she was doing it without facing break points. By the time she upped her lead to 4-2 in the second set, she had not lost a point on her serve. With each passing game, Stephens, understandably, look more and more dejected. The end came quickly.
“Just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t get a chance to really get into the match, but sometimes that happens,” Stephens said.
By beating the U.S. No. 1, Konta reached her third Grand Slam final and all have come on different surfaces: hard court (2016 Australian Open), grass (2017 Wimbledon), and now clay (2019 Roland Garros).
“I’ve always said that whenever I step out onto the court, I’m always going to have a chance. I’m always going to have a shot. I don’t think any player on tour can go on court against me and feel like they’ve definitely got it,” said Konta, who has reached finals at Rabat and Rome this season and also guided Great Britain’s return to the Fed Cup World Group with some solid performances.
From 2013-18, Konta’s tour-level win-loss record on clay was a disappointing 7-15. She’s turned it around this year with an impressive 15-3 showing, never doubting her ability to play on the surface. She’s also benefiting from working with new coach Dimitri Zavialoff.
“I think there are different experiences that you accumulate throughout the season,” Konta said. “I have definitely had a lot of good ones this year, which can only help me in situations like these.”
By the numbers
• Over her last three matches, defending champion and No. 3 seed Simona Halep has broken her opponent’s serve 16 consecutive times.
• Americans Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Amanda Anisimova all reached the French Open quarterfinals this fortnight. The last time the U.S. women placed at least three players in the quarterfinals was back in 2004, when it was Jennifer Capriati, Serena Williams and Venus Williams.
What they’re saying
Petra Martic, 28, on her decision to hire Sandra Zaniewska, age 27, as her new coach: “When I started working with her, everybody was doubting my decision. People underestimated it, people even laughed at it, said I did a crazy thing, what am I doing? I’m not serious about my career because she’s so young and inexperienced. But I always knew, I heard this girl talking about tennis and I knew she knows what she’s doing.”