We thought Johanna Konta had learned to manage her tendency to tense up at the decisive moments in matches. But old habits returned on Friday under the stress of a grand-slam semi-final.
Playing a 19-year-old opponent in the Czech Republic’s Marketa Vondrousova, Konta served for both sets but botched her opportunities and slumped to a bitter 7-5, 7-6 defeat. With eighth seed Ashleigh Barty coming through the other semi-final, one painful question arises: will she ever have a better chance of winning a major?
Until Friday, initially low expectations for this tournament had helped Konta deliver a more relaxed brand of tennis. But that was before she walked out on Court Simonne Mathieu as the favourite against an unseeded opponent. As she stood within touching distance of her first slam final – and the first for any British woman since Virginia Wade in 1977 – her racket arm looked as if it had been loaded with lead weights.
Meanwhile, Vondrousova grew into the match after a shaky beginning. As she began knocking the ball around in an increasingly carefree manner, you had to wonder whether the French Open’s controversial scheduling policy had worked to her advantage.
Thanks to Wednesday’s total washout – only the second here since 2000 – both women’s semi-finals were shifted from their initial berths on the 15,000-seat Court Philippe Chatrier. The new plan was an 11am start in front of a smattering of supporters – perhaps 1,500 or so – on Roland Garros’s third-string arena.
One suspects that the underwhelming atmosphere helped Vondrousova, and it certainly offered a poor advert for gender equality when both men’s semi-finals were allowed to proceed on the main stadium. In a statement released on Thursday night, WTA boss Steve Simon attacked the French Open by calling the scheduling “unfair and inappropriate”.
So what did Konta make of this call? At her post-match press conference, she was initially reluctant to comment. Her policy on any controversy – from Maria Sharapova’s meldonium test to Katie Boulter’s recent prize-money debate – is usually to stay out of it. Eventually, though, she allowed herself to be drawn.
Asked whether the match had felt like a grand-slam semi-final, Konta replied “In terms of the surrounding and the occasion, probably not.” She also said that she had not been consulted about the decision, before continuing “What is really unfortunate is that female athletes have to sit in different positions and justify their scheduling or their involvement in an event or their salary or their opportunities.
“My job is to come here and entertain people, and I feel I did that. If the organisers do not feel that that is something that can be promoted and celebrated, then I think it's the organisers you need to have a conversation with, not me, because I did my job and I did my job well.”
It had promised to be a day to remember – in a more positive sense – when Konta collected the first 10 points without having to work too hard. Vondrousova, who has never previously gone beyond the second round here, was so nervous that she could barely feel her hands, judging by the consecutive pair of double-faults she coughed up in the opening game.
Even here, though, there were signs of what was to come. Konta could have made it 11 straight points, and probably set up a double-break, if she had put away a juicy forehand from right on top of the net. Instead – like so many other similar shots later in the match – the forehand slid needlessly wide, and Vondrousova settled down with her first service hold.
Ranked No. 38, Vondrousova is under-rated, and covers the court so well that her quarter-final victim Petra Martic described her as the best mover on the tour. But she didn’t make the running in this match, simply opting to roll the ball back in on the majority of points. Konta was the one hitting winners, but also the one spraying her groundstrokes, on the way to a final tally of 41 unforced errors.
The wind was strong on Court Simonne Mathieu. The players had to stop from time to time as clay blew into their eyes. But that wasn’t an excuse for Konta’s duo of doom – the two shocking shots that she played to waste set points while leading 5-3, 15-40 on Vondrousova’s serve.
Both times, she had pinned Vondrousova back with ferocious forehand drives and earned a short ball that should have given her an easy kill. The first instance was the more culpable as she came rushing in as fast as her feet could carry her and swung a drive volley both wide and long. In hindsight, a steadier approach – perhaps even allowing the ball to bounce – might have changed the whole outcome of this match.
On the second set point, Konta attempted a backhand slice rather than driving the ball with her two-hander as usual, but found the top of the net. Vondrousova then saved a third set point with a forehand winner, and the sinking feeling that must have developed in the pit of Konta’s stomach surely contributed to her loss of four straight games, allowing 5-3 to become 5-7.
When it came to the crunch of the second set – with Konta again serving at 5-4 – she ill-advisedly became tangled up in touch rallies against a player with superior feel, and then double-faulted to be broken. The match was sliding away from her. Appropriately enough, Vondrousova closed it out with one more delectable drop-shot, and will play Barty – who defeated another teenager in 17-year-old American Amanda Animisova – in Saturday’s final.
Three grand slam semi-finals for Johanna Konta
And three defeats. Far too many mistakes, sadly. Vondrousova will play Barty in the final.
Game, set and match! Vondrousova beats Konta 7-5, 7-6
A stunning backhand drop shot seals the tie-break 7-2 and with it the match! Konta is out, the 19-year-old Vondrousova is through to the French Open final without dropping a set.
Second set tie-break: Konta 2-6 Vondrousova* (*next server)
Konta misses a forehand and it's four match points Vondrousova.
Second set tie-break: Konta 2-5 Vondrousova* (*next server)
Oh wow! That is the shot of the match, and maybe the tournament! Vondrousova is miles off court but chases down a forehand and somehow finds a forehand pass up the line.
Second set tie-break: Konta* 2-4 Vondrousova (*next server)
Konta dominates the rally but thwacks a tight backhand into the net. Vondrousova has the mini-break again as the players switch sides.
Second set tie-break: Konta* 2-3 Vondrousova (*next server)
Vondrousova hits a drop shot that hits the net and doesn't quite make it over. We're back on serve.
Second set tie-break: Konta 1-3 Vondrousova* (*next server)
Another dismal Konta drop shot in a point she was dominating gives Vondrousova an easy put-away.
Second set tie-break: Konta 1-2 Vondrousova* (*next server)
Excellent crosscourt backhand winner from Konta gets her on the board.
Second set tie-break: Konta* 0-2 Vondrousova (*next server)
Konta nets a forehand and Vondrousova has the early mini-break.
Second set tie-break: Konta* 0-1 Vondrousova (*next server)
Konta sends a forehand wide to give Vondrousova the lead in the breaker.
Konta 5-7, 6-6 Vondrousova* (*next server) - Tie-break
A much better drop shot takes Konta to 15-0, but she nets a forehand for 15-15. Vondrousova is doing little more at the moment than bunting the ball back into play and waiting for errors. Konta bangs down two big serves though to bring up 40-15, and she seals the hold with a forehand winner.
We're into a second set tie-break.
Konta* 5-7, 5-6 Vondrousova (*next server)
The blood has drained from Konta's face. She's looking up at her box as if to say 'what on earth is going on here?'. Her brain is scrambled again, and Vondrousova holds to love. Those were some horrible points from Konta.
Konta, just as in the first set, goes from serving for the set to serving to stay in it. And this time she'll also be serving to stay in the match.
Konta 5-7, 5-5 Vondrousova* (*next server) - Vondrousova breaks back
Konta remember failed to serve out the first set. Can she do it this time? Well, a smash for 15-15 at least gives her a platform. She then misses a backhand though, and it's 15-30. Oh and what is that? Another dreadful drop shot allows Vondrousova to eventually flick away a volley to open up two set points at 15-40. Konta saves the first with a wonderful volley, but she double faults on the second!
Oh dear, as in the first set, Konta fails to serve it out. We're back on serve, with the rain starting to fall harder.
Konta* 5-7, 5-4 Vondrousova (*next server)
A bit of a throwaway game from Konta, whose mind seemed to have already drifted to attempting to serve out the set. Vondrousova holds to love, and Konta will come out to try and force a decider.
Konta 5-7, 5-3 Vondrousova* (*next server)
This really is such a strange match. Konta looks to be cruising to an easy hold at 40-0, but suddenly she can barely find the court. A string of misses have us at deuce, before she rediscovers her composure and digs out the hold.
As in the first set, Vondrousova will serve to stay in the set.
Konta* 5-7, 4-3 Vondrousova (*next server)
That's a pretty dismal returning game from Konta. She misses four makeable returns and Vondrousova holds to 30. Still, if Konta can win her next two service games then we'll be into a decider.
Konta 5-7, 4-2 Vondrousova* (*next server)
As much as the quality isn't great, you have to give Konta a huge amount of credit for the way she's responded after losing the first set. She's much more composed this game and holds to 15 with an easy put-away.
Konta* 5-7, 3-2 Vondrousova (*next server)
This has the feel of the proverbial wet and windy Tuesday night at the Britannia. The conditions are horrible, there's zero atmosphere, and the winner will be the one who grinds the better. Another low-quality game goes Vondrousova's way to 15 after Konta sends a backhand return well long.
The other semi-final meanwhile has been even more bonkers than this one. Barty led the first set 5-0 but lost it 7-6. Anisimova led 3-0 in the second but has just lost it 6-3. So into a decider they go over on Lenglen, with the winner of that facing the winner of this tomorrow.
Konta 5-7, 3-1 Vondrousova* (*next server)
The quality of the match has sagged, with the vast majority of points ending with errors rather than winners. Konta has a point for 3-1 but she nets a backhand to make it deuce. Konta eventually holds though, and she will care not one iota that the overall level is pretty low right now. It's three games in a row now for her.
Overall, as Chris Evert points out, both players have hit more errors than winners this match, which gives you an idea of the nerves and conditions they are battling against.
Konta* 5-7, 2-1 Vondrousova (*next server) - Konta breaks
And just like that the momentum swings again! Suddenly it's Vondrousova who tightens up, missing from the back of the court and being broken to 15 after netting a backhand.
Konta is a set down but up a break in the second.
Konta 5-7, 1-1 Vondrousova* (*next server)
Boy did she need that. Much better serving, backed up by a couple of aggressive forehands help Konta to a hold to 30. Hopefully that will help her refocus after a shocking 20 minutes or so.
Konta* 5-7, 0-1 Vondrousova (*next server)
This is really worrying for Konta because Vondrousova is purring now. An ace and a stunning drop shot seal a hold to 15 to make it five games in a row.
The stats from the first set are below - the standout one for me being that Konta won less than 50 per cent of points on her first serve. Against Sloane Stephens in the quarter-final remember she dropped just one point on serve in the whole of the second set.
Konta 5-7 Vondrousova* (*next server) - First set Vondrousova
Vondrousova is starting to get more of a read on Konta's groundstrokes, and she draws a backhand error here to force a set point at 30-40. Konta thinks she's done enough but looks aghast as a Vondrousova lob drops over her head onto the baseline.
Wow, what a turnaround. Having held three set points at 5-3, Konta has lost the first set 7-5 after 53 minutes.
If Konta loses this match, she will have nightmares about the first set point at 5-3 when she missed an absolute sitter of a volley. Honestly, it was like that one Roddick missed at Wimbledon in the second set tie-break against Federer 10 years ago.
Konta* 5-6 Vondrousova (*next server)
Konta suddenly looks really muddled. She's throwing in drop shots that just aren't working, and it's allowed Vondrousova to wrestle back the initiative. Vondrousova then shows her how it's done with a gorgeous drop shot-lob combo to seal a hold to 30.
Vondrousova has won three games in a row, and having served for the set a few minutes ago, Konta will now serve to stay in it.
It's also started to rain. Honestly these are the grizzliest conditions imaginable for a grand slam semi-final.
Konta 5-5 Vondrousova* (*next server) - Vondrousova breaks back
Konta kicks the game off an ace before a netted backhand makes it 15-15. She then makes an absolute mess of a drop shot, which Vondrousova can canter onto and flick away for 15-30. That's much better though - a fearless backhand winner up the line from Konta makes it 30-30. But she then drags a backhand wide to fall down a break point at 30-40. And Vondrousova takes it! Konta makes a mess of an approach shot and Vondrousova guides an easy forehand pass up the line.
That was a horribly tight game, and from 5-3, 40-15 up Konta has been pegged back to 5-5.
Konta* 5-4 Vondrousova (*next server) - Vondrousova saves three set points and holds
Oh yes! Konta moves to 0-30 with a backhand return winner that she hits from almost outside the tramlines and curls around the net posts. Vondrousova then pulls a forehand wide, and it's two set points for Konta at 15-40. She has the first on her racket but misses an absolute sitter of a volley - blaring it well long. How on earth did she miss that? Honestly I think I would have made it. On the second Konta is again in control of the point but gets caught in two minds and nets a backhand. These are nervy moments for Konta, and for Vondrousova as well! She double faults to present her opponent with a third set point. Vondrousova saves it though with a forehand winner, and eventually holds after reeling off the next two points. Blimey, this is tense.
Konta, having missed three set points, will now serve for the first set. What a test of nerve this is going to be.
Konta 5-3 Vondrousova* (*next server)
At 30-30, Konta looks in danger again on her serve. But she absolutely bullets a forehand winner up the line and bangs down an ace out wide that is adjudged by umpire Kader Nouni to have clipped the line. Vondrousova thinks he has the wrong mark, but the call stands and it's game Konta.
Vondrousova will serve to stay in the first set.
Konta* 4-3 Vondrousova (*next server)
Much better serving from Vondrousova, as she holds to love to keep the pressure on her opponent. Konta is trying a few drop shots, which aren't working especially well so far.
Konta 4-2 Vondrousova* (*next server)
It's Konta who's making the running here, taking the game to her opponent and being the aggressor as we expected. Some strong serving helps her to 40-30, and a missed Vondrousova backhand seals the hold.
Backing up the idea that it's Konta playing more aggressively: she has hit nine winners so far to her opponent's four.
Konta* 3-2 Vondrousova (*next server) - Konta breaks
Both players struggling with the heavy wind - Vondrousova double faulting and Konta completely miscuing a return. It's Konta though who is coping better, and she breaks at the second attempt when Vondrousova, who is really struggling with her timing, sends a forehand long.
Three breaks of serve in the first five games.
Konta 2-2 Vondrousova* (*next server) - Vondrousova breaks back
Vondrousova has definitely settled after that nervy start. She's drawing Konta into longer rallies and hustling her into making errors. After sharing the first four points of the game, a Konta forehand skews wide to set up a break point at 30-40. Konta saves it with a forehand winner, and moments later is forced to save a second one - this time with an awkward, unreturned serve. Konta then misses a couple of game points but saves a third break point with another rasping forehand winner. And then a fourth - this time with a backhand winner up the line. On both occasions, the winners are set up by pin-point serves. That's been such a feature of Konta's tournament. But finally Konta does crack, double faulting on the fifth break point to hand the break back to Vondrousova.
Meanwhile the atmosphere remains so muted. "It's like a second round match the atmosphere so far," says Chris Evert on Eurosport.
Such a shame for both these players.
Konta* 2-1 Vondrousova (*next server)
Konta races to 0-30 - helped by a brilliant drop shot-volley combo - but finally loses a point (after winning the first 10) when she misses an easy forehand. Buoyed by that reprieve, Vondrousova starts to play with a bit more authority and ekes out a hold to 30.
Presentable chance for the double break missed there by Konta.
Konta 2-0 Vondrousova* (*next server)
These are really rancid conditions. It's cold, the wind is picking up, the stadium is half-empty with supporters still trickling in.
Konta though is dealing with the environment far better. She holds to love here and has won eight out of eight points so far. Extraordinary start.
Konta* 1-0 Vondrousova (*next server) - Konta breaks
What a start for Konta! It's a break to love after a Vondrousova double fault and a couple of errors, followed by a brilliant backhand winner up the line.
Here we go. Vondrousova serving first.
Konta and Vondrousova are knocking up, and we'll be under way very shortly.
The players are out
A reminder that due to some crazy scheduling, this match is being played on the third-biggest court at Roland Garros, which is absurd for a grand-slam semi-final.
Weather-wise, it's a chilly, windy morning in Paris.
The last British woman to reach the French Open was Jo Durie in 1983. She told me on Wednesday that it was 'about time' someone matched her record.
"I think it’s fantastic and about time. It’s incredible really that my records have lasted so long. All the talk of it makes me feel very old!"
Play set to start at 10am
It's drizzling in Paris but for the moment not enough to delay the start of play.
Expect the unexpected
Hands up then, who saw this semi-final coming a couple of weeks ago? It's pretty crazy to think that genuinely no-one I spoke to gave Konta, let alone the unseeded teenager Marketa Vondrousova, a chance of reaching this stage.
Vondrousova actually probably had more backing before the start of the tournament given the French Open's knack of catapulting unseeded players to super-stardom.
Konta meanwhile had not won so much as a match at the French Open in her previous four attempts - a sequence that led to pretty much every expert writing off her chances of ever being a a factor on clay.
But with the softly spoken Dimitri Zavialoff by her side, Konta has added more variety to her game and after making the finals in Rabat and Rome she is the WTA's form player on clay.
Against Sloane Stephens on Tuesday, she produced a performance of such perfection that the seven-time French Open champion Chris Evert declared herself 'speechless', and added: “That was one of the bet clay-court matches - ever."
Having beaten last year's finalist Stephens so handily, today's assignment should in theory be more straightforward. Vondrousova is after all ranked No 38 and has no grand-slam semi-final experience to call upon.
To under-estimate Vondrousova though would be foolish - especially in a tournament where we have come to expect the unexpected. Vondrousova is yet to lose a set at this year's Roland Garros and possesses a dazzling array of shots - not least her wondrous drop shot that she will look to unsettle Konta with.
The pair have a victory apiece from their previous two meetings, with Konta winning their most recent meeting in three sets - on clay at the Italian Open last month.
Weather permitting, the pair will be taking to Court Simonne-Mathieu (the third biggest court at Roland Garros, which has caused a bit of a stir) at 10am BST.