It’s that time of year again: no, not just major-tournament time, but the more specific point within a major tournament when it becomes clear that one player will become a surprise semifinalist at a major tournament.
It doesn’t always happen, but it often does, especially on the WTA side of things. Yes, the ATP produces unlikely major semifinalists as well — ask Lucas Pouille in Melbourne earlier this year, or John Isner at Wimbledon last summer, or Marco Cecchinato a year ago in Paris. However, the WTA has been well ahead of the ATP this decade in that department.
Remember that from 2013 Wimbledon (Kirsten Flipkens) through 2017 Wimbledon (Magdalena Rybarikova), the WTA produced 17 straight major tournaments with a first-time major semifinalist, 19 players in all. Why do we at Tennis With An Accent include “surprise semifinalist” on our pre-tournament list of prediction-based topics? Because the semifinal round is late enough in a tournament and prestigious enough to warrant big, global headlines, yet it is also attained often enough to attract notice and merit commentary.
A major semifinal berth is sexy and substantial in all the ways one might imagine — money, points, proximity to a possible championship. It also guarantees a player a stage unto herself. In the quarterfinals of a major tournament, one quarterfinal will be played on one court while another quarterfinal will be played on another court. Quarterfinalists aren’t given exclusivity on an order of play, but semifinalists are.
Yet, a semifinalist is often — not always, but often — the ceiling for the off-the-radar player who creates the tournament of her career. Such was the case for Danielle Collins at this year’s Australian Open. It was the case for Anastasija Sevastova, the first-time semifinalist at last year’s U.S. Open. It was true for Julia Goerges at Wimbledon last year and Elise Mertens in 2018 in Australia.
Of those 19 straight first-time semifinalists in 17 major tournaments from 2013 Wimbledon through 2017 Wimbledon, only five moved past the semifinals and into the final. (One of the five winning semifinalists played another first-time semifinalist in a semifinal: Simona Halep over Andrea Petkovic at the 2014 French Open.) Only one — Jelena Ostapenko — won the title (Roland Garros in 2017).
Here at Roland Garros in 2019, then, we have arrived at a moment when it is clear that three players have a great chance for a first major semifinal, with a fourth player having a chance for a second major semifinal and the ability to sustain her place on tour.
The three players who can make a first major semifinal in the bottom half of the women’s draw in Paris are Petra Martic, Kaia Kanepi, and Marketa Vondrousova. Martic’s previous ceiling is the fourth round, while Kanepi has previous made the major quarterfinal stage. Vondrousova’s previous best is the fourth round.
The one player who can return to the major semifinal round is Anastasija Sevastova, who saved five match points to outlast Elise Mertens in a thrilling epic match on Friday, 11-9 in the third. Yet, she has tasted the final four of a major only once before. Like the other three players in her quarter of the draw, this is an uncommon opportunity to make a run at a major final, if not a title. The importance of this moment for Sevastova, on a more immediate level, is that if she can bank semifinal points in Paris, the possible loss of semifinal points she is defending later this season at the U.S. Open would not cause a big drop in the rankings. A huge gain in France would offset any loss in New York.
Martic. Kanepi. Vondrousova. Sevastova. This is an amazing chance for one to make a semifinal and see what she can do next Thursday, with a spot in the June 8 final on the line.
Of these four players, it has already been established that Sevastova is the exceptional figure in that she has already made a major semi. In a separate way, the woman she will face in Sunday’s fourth round is the exceptional member of the group… and the one with the brightest future.
Martic is 28. Kanepi is 33. Sevastova is 29. They are all battle-hardened veterans of the tour. They haven’t learned everything there is to know about tennis, but there is an unmistakable urgency attached to their current situations; they are trying to seize every chance they get, knowing it might be their last.
Vondrousova, on the other hand, is 19. She has already left a significant imprint on the tour. She emerged in 2017 with a title in Lugano, won over Anett Kontaveit in the final. That gained the attention of the locker room. In 2018, she reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open. She wasn’t hugely consistent over the course of the full season — and no one expected her to be at age 18 — but she still showed she could compete at a higher level on a few occasions.
This year, the 19-year-old who will turn 20 in late June has begun to put the pieces together. Vondrousova has reached the quarterfinals at two Premier Mandatory events — Indian Wells and Miami — plus the Premier 5 in Rome. She has beaten Simona Halep twice. Friday, she handled a former Roland Garros quarterfinalist and seasoned professional, Carla Suarez Navarro.
She isn’t merely advancing in tournaments; she is beating quality players en route.
While Sevastova — her opponent on Sunday — and the Martic-Kanepi winner are trying to create a mountaintop moment late in a career, before the magic stops, Marketa Vondrousova is just beginning to unleash the measure of her talents on the rest of the WTA Tour. No, we’re not going to predict that she will win X amount of majors or conquer the tour, but at a time when 21-year-old Naomi Osaka has already shown the signs of becoming a generationally significant and memorable player, Marketa Vondrousova’s current trajectory certainly points to some exciting possibilities.
In a field of opportunity — and a section of the draw which could very easily produce a first-time major semifinalist — Marketa Vondrousova has every reason to be optimistic about her Roland Garros chances… and her future in tennis.