Dream chance for Konta and Vondrousova

 - Ian Chadband

Reinvented Konta collides with brilliant teen Vondrousova in RG semi-finals.

At the start of this tournament, if you had told Johanna Konta, a serial first-round loser on the Paris clay, and Marketa Vondrousova, a teenager who had never ventured beyond the second round here, that they would be squaring off for a place in the Roland-Garros singles final, both might have thought the idea a mite fanciful.

Now, though, as they prepare for a fascinating duel on Court Simonne-Mathieu on Friday, the pair look absolutely as if they belong there, having delivered some of the best tennis of the fortnight and, indeed, of their competitive lives.

It is a difficult one to call; the experienced Briton Konta, already a two-time Grand Slam semi-finalist, against Vondrousova, a rapidly rising starlet of the women’s tour who is following seamlessly in that grand tradition of Czech left-handers, stretching back from Martina Navratilova through Lucie Safarova to Petra Kvitova.  

It feels like it should be Konta’s time. At 28, the player born in Australia to Hungarian parents before they found a new home on the English south coast, appears to be in a happily settled place with her powerful if mechanical game now being sprinkled with fresh variety, thanks to her latest coach, Dimitri Zavialoff.

Yet it could be that the Frenchman’s real triumph has been to make Konta believe not just in her game, but trust in herself. “He's been great in just encouraging me and giving me the space to play the way I want, not putting too many restraints or restrictions on me,” she said, after crushing last year’s finalist Sloane Stephens in the quarter-finals.

That was a performance which left the seven-time Roland-Garros champion Chris Evert briefly “speechless” before she declared: “No one can beat Konta as long as she plays like that.”

Goodness, that was some commendation from a legend. Yet you suspect it would not faze Vondrousova, a 19-year-old with a big game and a daring streak who just keeps making precocious progress, after some injury interruptions last year, without seemingly a care in the world. She began the year at No.67 in the world; if she beats Konta, she’ll be on the verge of the top 15.

And why not? Konta enjoys rhythm and constancy in her game. Vondrousova, with her elegant whipped forehands and propensity to try to drive opponents batty with drop shots, will offer her no such luxury. 

What’s been so striking about Vondrousova here is how much evident enjoyment she’s taken from the whole adventure. Someone here asked her, "When did you realise that you're a good player?", to which she responded cheerily: “I don’t know. Maybe now!”

And there you have it; a girl who is still discovering herself, still enjoying the exploration of a talent that has the potential to carry her to the very top of the game. She sounds as if she still can’t quite credit how she’s not even dropped a set here. A non-seeded European teenager racing freely towards a maiden Grand Slam title on the clay? Shades of Jelena Ostapenko, perhaps?

Not if Konta can help it. Three weeks ago, she tamed the Czech 6-1 in the third set of their Italian Open clash. Ah, but Vondrousova had played six hard-fought sets just the previous day when beating both Simona Halep and Daria Kastkina, and looked a bit jaded.

So what would she need to do differently against Konta this time, Vondrousova was asked. “I think,” she said, with that shy smile sparkling again, “play better!” Of that, Konta can be assured…