Two years ago, at Wimbledon in 2017, Jo Konta defeated Donna Vekic, 10-8 in the third set. The second-round match was one of many familiar heartbreakers for Vekic in her young career. In the subsequent 23 months, Vekic has allowed several other matches to slip through her fingers. The Konta loss didn’t start a pattern, but it allowed a pattern to continue.
The significance of that match from Konta’s side was also substantial, but not in a way which endured. Konta used that survival act to race to the Wimbledon semifinals, one of the foremost highlights of her career. Konta made a home in the top five and seemed to have a chance to contend for significant titles for a number of years. She had won Miami in 2017. Plenty of people were beginning to view her as a top-tier player, and for every legitimate reason: Her results were strong — not on clay, but certainly on hardcourts and grass.
Then came a coaching change, and then came regression in 2018. As naturally and as regularly as the sun rises in the east, tennis players suffer in a given year after rising to prominence the previous season. They become targets. The tour pushes back. They get opponents’ best shots. By winning more, they create more chances for other coaches to scout against them.
Every tennis player gets punched in the mouth at some point. Most endure a rough season after making a name for themselves on tour. 2018 was that season for Konta.
This is normal — not fun, but normal. 2019 was the year in which Konta had to dust herself off, rise from the canvas, and return to playing at a strong level — maybe not top-10 quality, but enough to reenter conversations of players capable of going deep into big tournaments.
It seemed entirely reasonable to think Konta could do this.
It seemed entirely unreasonable to think it would happen on clay, the surface which had totally flummoxed her in the past.
Yet, Konta made the finals of Rabat and Rome and has now backed up her clay season with a fourth-round result (and possibly more) in Paris. Unlike a number of players who did well in the lead-up events before Roland Garros but then ran out of steam in France — including Maria Sakkari, who joined Konta in the Rome semifinals — Konta has been able to sustain her clay-court game at Rolly G, a very impressive statement which has not gone unnoticed by industry insiders.
Konta has stabilized her year on the surface she — and everyone else — never could have expected.
Vekic, for her part, has been viewed as a threat on Wimbledon grass, but she hasn’t waited until early July to make a charge at a major. She has used this last week of May to transform her season.
The WTA is so deep and so good that it’s not a huge surprise when any number of players reach fourth rounds, quarterfinals, or semifinals at important tournaments. This is part of the reality of the current tour. It is therefore impressive that within this context of depth — a context in which various results from players outside the top 20 do NOT elicit reactions marked by shock or amazement — Donna Vekic and Jo Konta have done something which somehow seems remarkable and feels improbable.
No, it’s not that they have made the second week at a major — they both have the game to be semifinal-level players at big events — but that they have done so on clay, the last surface anyone would have guessed for a 2019 resurgence.
Now, Donna Vekic and Jo Konta will play for a major quarterfinal. On clay. In France.
Surprises happen all the time in tennis. This one is quite delightful for the two women involved.