On a very blustery day in Paris, women’s tennis was relegated to the lesser show courts, sparking controversy, again.
There is nothing for me to be disappointed in or upset about, I mean, I lost a tennis match, but I also won five. I can only take the good things from that. I think she reads the game really well, With her being a lefty, she has that added variety... the way the ball comes back is going to be different than 95% of the time that we play matches out there. Jo Konta
The lack of atmosphere on the half-full the 5,000-seater Court Simonne Mathieu probably contributed a little Johanna Konta’s mood where, despite leading in both sets, the British No 1 bowed out to Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova, 7-5 7-6(2).
The loss was by no means a disgrace considering Konta’s track record on the clay of Roland Garros, but the way she has been playing in her run to the semi-finals at the French Open gave hope for ultimate glory that was not to be.
“The way it looks probably speaks for itself more than anything,” said Konta, referring to the stadium afterwards.
Under normal scheduling, the women’s semi-finals would have been played on Thursday on the showpiece 15,000-capacity Court Philippe Chatrier.
After Wednesday’s wash out and more rain forecast for Friday, however, Roland Garros organisers decided to move both women’s semi-finals away from the main area.
While Konta and Vondrousova played on Simonne Mathieu, the other semi-final between Ashleigh Barty and Amanda Anisimova was staged on the 10,000-seat Suzanne Lenglen.
Both semis started at 11am before spectators, let alone the players, were barely awake.
With Rafael Nadal’s semi against Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic’s meeting with Dominic Thiem both on the 15,000-seat Court Philippe Chatrier, WTA Chief Executive Steve Simon was quick to respond.
“We are extremely disappointed by the scheduling of both women’s semi-finals on outside courts,” Simon said. “The four women who have played so well and made it this far have earned their right to play on the biggest stage.
“We believe other solutions were possible, which would have been to the benefit of fans as well as all players.”
Tournament Director Guy Forget, however, defended the scheduling, saying: “You’re afraid that some players might feel that it’s a lack of respect or we are just trying to diminish it — no. Ideally, when you see historically what has happened in the tournament, we try to be fair to everyone.”
Former World No 1 Amélie Mauresmo took to Twitter to vent: “It is shameful for our tournament. Everyone agrees that the match of the day is Federer/Nadal but what message are we sending by taking the decision to put the two women’s semi-finals on at 11 a.m. on the second and third courts?
“No match on the centre court? It’s simple to open Lenglen and Chatrier and have the two women’s matches at 1 p.m. followed by the two men’s.”
All that apart, Konta started in much the same manner as she had finished her quarter-final against Sloane Stephens, whom she basically blasted off the court.
Vondrousova had never been beyond the 4th round at a Grand Slam before and her nerves were obvious in the first game, giving up back-to-back double faults, while Konta clinched the break with a backhand winner down the line.
Bidding to become Britain’s first female French Open finalist since Sue Barker won the 1976 title, Konta looked the stronger player for large periods of the match, but a staggering 41 unforced errors proved her un-doing.
By the time the 19-year old Vondrousova won her first point, Konta had already won 10, but the Brit let her opponent off the hook by firing a forehand wide of the open court, and opened the door for a Czech comeback.
The first set was a particularly disappointing as the Brit had 3 set points at 5-3 only to lose 4 games in a row.
“There is nothing for me to be disappointed in or upset about,” she asserted afterwards. “I mean, I lost a tennis match, but I also won five. I can only take the good things from that.”
Konta was full of praise for her opponent’s all-court talent: “I think she reads the game really well,” she said. “With her being a lefty, she has that added variety… the way the ball comes back is going to be different than 95% of the time that we play matches out there.
“I think she competes really well, as well. There are very few drop-offs from how she plays… She asks you a lot of questions out there, and I think that’s a real gift of hers.”
Vondrousova took full advantage of Konta’s lapse, reeling off 4 straight games to make the Brit pay.
Despite the Czech’s undoubted skill, there were certainly moments when key points had been on Konta’s racket, such as that wild drive volley with which she squandered her first set point of 3 in the opening stanza.
“It’s actually not that difficult [to get over], because I did the right thing,” Konta pointed out. “There were certain things that also had a say in how those balls went. It was incredibly blustery out there.
“I took the opportunity to come in and take it out of the air, and that’s what I would do nine times out of ten, and probably nine times out of ten it probably would go in, as well… To be honest, I feel very comfortable with how I played and what I tried to do out there. I don’t think I have any regrets, really.
“I think my opponent played really well. I’m proud in how I tried to find a way out there. I’m proud in how I tried to work the points, how I tried to play out there against her. It just didn’t go my way.”
Konta gathered herself, though, and took total control of the second set with an early break, moving 5-3 in front again.
But she tightened up once more when the pressure was on, dropping serve when one game from forcing a decider in a downpour of errors.
With light rain falling on Roland Garros, Vondrousova sealed the victory by racing through the tiebreak and into the final.
Vondrousova, who has a dream of a drop-shot and lob combination, had come to the fore in particular at the business end of both sets after steadying herself and finding her range, and she broke late in both to claim her place in tennis history.
Six minutes later, the 8th-seeded Barty recovered from a substantial early collapse to finish off her own semi-final against another teenage phenom America’s Amanda Anisimova, winning 6-7(4) 6-3 6-3 on Suzanne Lenglen Court.
Anisimova, 17, had trailed by 0-5, 15-40 in the first set before suddenly surging, leaving the Australian, 23, staring down a set and 0-3 deficit midway through the second set after the American reeled off 16 straight points to assert her lead.
Told by the on-court interviewer that she would remember the match forever, Barty expressed the residual whiplash she still felt from the wild swings in control.
“Both good and bad memories,” Barty admitted. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
“I think the reset was easy after the first set. It was kind of during it that was the toughest bit. I played some really good tennis. I played some pretty awful tennis.”
Anisimova won just 3 points in the first 5 games as Barty pocketed them all, and had double set point before the American responded by turning things around, winning the next 6 games in a row and then taking the set on a tiebreak.
“I felt like that happened really quickly then I went away from what was working,” Barty said. “Amanda was so aggressive, she was able to take advantage of that.”
Barty’s normally steady serve, which was so effective against Madison Keys on Thursday, didn’t hold up against Anisimova, dipping all the way below 50 percent on first deliveries.
With full momentum on her side, the 17-year-old American, who had knocked out defending champion Simona Halep in the quarter-finals, forged ahead to 3-0, extending her run to 17 straight points.
“I was really happy the way I was able to respond at a set and 3-Love and to really turn the match on its head, even though it wasn’t the best tennis in pretty tough conditions,” Barty said.
“That’s probably, yeah, what I’m most proud of.”
To her credit, 23-year-old Barty remained perfectly calm – you don’t get to No 8 in the world without some belief in yourself.
The Aussie got on the board for 1-3, and then won 7 games in a row, marking Anisimova’s first dropped set of the tournament.
Anisimova got the early break for 2-1 in the decider before Barty strung together 4 games to go up 5-2, 40-0, but she then promptly missed 3 forehands.
On her own serve, she again earned triple match point, with Anisimova saving 2 with winners until, finally, on her 6th Barty secured her place in her first Grand Slam final.
“It’s crazy. It really is,” Barty said. “And I think maybe a bit of a blessing in disguise that we’re playing day after day after day just to keep the momentum going and to keep kind of the same routines ticking over and all that business. I think it’s incredible. It really is.”
Barty had reached her first Grand Slam final by ultimately settling her nerves in time to clinch the tense 3-setter.
After taking a break from professional tennis as a teenager, having found the pressure too much, Barty spent time playing professional cricket, before making this remarkable comeback.
Although she had a 2-5 record at Roland Garros before this year, Barty goes into Saturday’s final as the favourite against the unseeded, 38th-ranked Vondrousova.
Barty has won their two previous matches, on grass in Birmingham, England, in 2017, and on hard courts in Cincinnati last year.
Meanwhile the controversy over the scheduling continues to rumble on.
The ominous weather forecast and pre-sold tickets for two men’s semi-finals sessions on the tournament’s primary stadium, Philippe Chatrier Court, had left the women’s semi-finalists to play at times and places rarely used to showcase such major showdowns.
“No-one asked me before the schedule came out, saying, Are you okay with this? Or anything like that,” said Konta. “But from my understanding, the schedule was released without the approval of multiple parties.”
Konta believes the controversy illustrates the problems women face in the sport.
Some commentators argued that had the likes of superstars Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka made the semi-finals then organisers would not have dared contemplate shifting the matches.
“What is tiring, and what is really unfortunate in this more than anything, is that women athletes have to justify their scheduling or their involvement in an event or their salary or their opportunities.
“And I think to give time to that is even more of a sad situation than what we found ourselves in today in terms of the scheduling.
“My job is to come here and entertain people, and I feel I did that.
“And 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.”
On Saturday, weather permitting, Barty will face Vondrousova in the women’s final on Court Philippe Chatrier, without question.