Rome | Pliskova defeats Konta to claim the crown in the Italian capital
Jo Konta’s great run came to an end at the Foro Italico, as she fell at the hands of fourth seed Karolina Pliskova, who played an impeccable match to claim her first major title on clay.
I just thought she didn't really have a letdown throughout the match. She played very consistently. I found it quite hard to get a footing into the match, which is credit to her. Jo Konta
K. Pliskova (7, seeded 4th) d. J. Konta (UK, 42) 6-3 6-4
Karolina Pliskova played a perfect match, denying a valiant Jo Konta in an hour and 25 minutes. It was their fifth career meeting, with Pliskova claiming them all but one, three years ago in Beijing, their last encounter before this one.
Neither player has ever been considered a clay-court specialist, as both like to flatten their shots and be aggressive from the early stages, but a greater degree of patience and improvements in some typically clay-ish areas have produced this surprising match up. Konta, in particular, had been serving at an excellent rate all week by taking the pace off and working on the stroke’s placement (and she did on Sunday as well, putting 70% of her first serves into play), as well as showcasing a loopier forehand, an excellent drop shot (essential in that rallies on the dirt often push players well behind the baseline), and above all a dramatically improved footwork, on a surface where the loss of footing is frequent, demanding perfect slides sideways and forward. Pliskova had started slowly, losing the opening set against both Sofia Kenin and Victoria Azarenka, but a rediscovered solidity with her serve and forehand had allowed her to reach the biggest final of her career on clay – and would ultimately carry her over the finish line.
And the aforementioned solidity on the Czech’s side was clear from the beginning, as she hit the ball with her clean strikes like it was a basketball, going effortlessly for risky solutions, and thwarting Konta on the right side. Pliskova broke in the second game, using her long lever to commence rallies on the ad court, and resisting Konta’s aggression to the body with her strong arm block. The Brit missed a forehand to concede a 30-30, and committed a double fault to open the door. A deep backhand then sealed the break.
Konta was forced to a deuce in the fourth game as well, but two precise serves to Pliskova’s forehand, stretching her opponent out, put her on the scoreboard. Pliskova wasn’t particularly fussed though, and held easily to go 4-1 up – her opening three service games lasted just four minutes and 51 seconds in total. Konta again found herself in peril during the sixth game, conceding a set point on her serve with a forehand mistake, after each and everyone of her shots didn’t manage to expose a weakness in Pliskova’s seraphic manoeuvring (interestingly, she seems to have incorporated some of Bertens’s extreme elbow turn to increase her topspin rate on the cross-court forehand). A good serve to the T saved her, and from the brink a sudden glimpse of hope glowingly dawned: a cross-court forehand, originally called out, inherently allowing another set point, was overturned, giving Konta the point, and after one more unreturned serve gave her the hold at 3-5, a Pliskova double fault gifted her with a break point to unexpectedly catch the fourth seed – the Czech had put 92% of her serves into play until that moment, and won both second serves points she had contested. Konta constructed the point with wisdom, hitting a good forehand down the line to elicit a weak defence, but her approach was deflected wide by the tape, to the despair of the few Brits present in the Pietrangeli Stadium. Pliskova recollected her thought, and an excellent slice serve to the intersection set her up with a set point, which she converted behind a dropshot mistake.
Konta tried to be more vertical at the beginning of the second set, piercing Pliskova with a nice forehand combination, but was again surprised by a heavy shot down the middle, conceding an immediate break opportunity. However, a kick serve and a powerful backhand down the middle provoked a mistake, and two wide serves gave her room to breathe.
Three quick holds followed, all the way to a 2-2 score, despite a lower percentage of firsts by Pliskova, until Konta found herself again in the line of fire: Pliskova stretched well to her right on the ad court, and hit a smart, deep slice that sent Konta’s backhand to the flowers around the court, levelling at 30-30. The Australian-born dug herself out of the hole with a timely forehand variation, surprising her opponent with a winner down the line, and held again with a winning serve.
The situation was ripe for Pliskova, though, and she simply let Konta make her own mistakes, which punctually came pouring down: in the seventh game, a double fault and an unforced error got her to 30-30, then another perfect defence, involving a short slice passing shot and a deep lob that forced a mistake on the run, sparked one more breaking chance fir the Czech player. Konta hit a backhand down the line, her trademark shot, to foil it, but was lured into a wide forehand by the umpteenth rally down the middle, showing the customary little patience of the pressured. A wide serve meant momentary relief, but another deuce soon followed. Pliskova didn’t rely on patience this time, and re-painted the line with a celestial forehand return winner, but let her weapon fall in frustration when a backhand into the net let Konta off the hook once more. However, JK came to her in her sorrow, and gently handed over a fourth break point with a backhand miss of her own, which Pliskova converted with a wrong-footing swinging volley after a seraphic attack build-up.
Konta didn’t back down, and dragged Pliskova to a double deuce in the ensuing game with a deep return, but missed a forehand return and a volley to surrender a 5-3 lead. The fourth seed wasn’t inclined to further magnanimity, and exploited a Konta slip to earn two match points. She mishit a forehand on the first one, while Konta came at her hard with a forehand winner to prolong the match. A slice approach pass provided her with a third championship chance, and this time she came through behind a forehand error.
This was Pliskova’s 13th career title, out of 25 final (3 out of 4 on clay), and her second Premier 5 after Cincinnati 2016. More importantly, on Monday her ranking will skyrocket from No.7 to No.2, putting her on the opposite side of the French Open’s draw to Naomi Osaka, who retained the top position in virtue of Halep’s surprising second round loss. Konta, on the other hand, will move back into the top 30, settling down at No.26, meaning that she will be seeded at the French Open, and most likely at Wimbledon as well.