By Martyn Herman
PARIS (Reuters) – Backhands and forehands can be manufactured on the practice courts but no amount of coaching can arm a player with the natural instinct Czech teenager Marketa Vondrousova has used to reach the French Open final.
The unseeded 19-year-old from Sokolov relied on it on a blustery Friday morning in Paris to beat the more experienced and more powerful Johanna Konta 7-5 7-6(2).
She will become the first teenager to play a French Open final since Ana Ivanovic 12 years ago when she takes on fellow Grand Slam final debutant Ashleigh Barty of Australia on Saturday.
Should she win she will emulate the feat of Hana Mandlikova in 1981 — the last Czech to win the French Open.
Headband-wearing Mandlikova, who was also 19 at the time, was known for her net-charging style and while Vondrousova, who sports a visor, is happier at the baseline there is something retro about an intuitive game with echoes of Martina Hingis.
Hingis won the 1997 Australian Open as a 16-year-old, not by blasting opponents off the court, but by outmanoeuvring them with superior court craft and improvisation.
That was very much how left-hander Vondrousova got the better of the more pre-programmed Konta on Friday.
“I love her game because she plays the game very intuitively and has a great instinct, really soft hands, she doesn’t need to be coached much,” Petr Pala, the Czech Fed Cup captain who handed Vondrousova her debut as a 17-year-old in the 2017 semi-final, told Reuters by telephone on Friday.
“She knows the way tennis should be played. Sometimes she can be a bit defensive, but she can still improve. You can’t really teach what she has. You can improve it and just put her on the right track. But she can work things out.”
Many times on Friday Konta appeared in control of points but Vondrousova displayed that handy knack of being able to anticipate where the next ball was coming, then counter it with a change of angle, pace or spin.
Konta was so thrown she racked up 41 unforced errors.
Vondrousova finished the first set with a defensive lob that left Konta flat-footed, then sealed the match with a dropshot played with a magician’s sleight of hand.
“I think she reads the game really well,” Konta, who beat Vondrousova in Rome a few weeks ago, acknowledged.
“Because she reads the game well I think she generally enjoys playing the game, that’s how it feels. She asks you a lot of questions, that’s a real gift of hers.”
With a ranking of 38 coming in Vondrousova was unseeded, but has reached the final without dropping a set — the first since fellow Czech Lucie Safarova achieved the feat in 2015.
Her coach Jan Hernych is understandably a little surprised by her spectacular progress but points to her results since the Australian Open, since when she has a Tour-leading 27-5 record.
“Her game is at a high level and is very confident,” he said. “Of course I’m a little surprised but she has had great results this year. There will be pressure tomorrow but I trust that she can handle it.”
Vondrousova lost the first 10 points against Konta but never panicked and quietly worked her way back into the match.
Three-times French Open champion Mats Wilander believes the mental stability she displayed in the biggest match of her career so far will hold her in good stead for the final.
“That’s her real strength,” Eurosport analyst Wilander said. “When you mix it up, it’s a great way to stay in the present.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)