Can the firsts keep coming for Johanna Konta at the French Open?


PARIS — On the eve of her 2019 French Open quarterfinal match against Sloane Stephens, Johanna Konta’s coach, Dimitri Zavialoff, tried to explain the one thing he thought had made the difference to the way Konta has been playing at Roland Garros.

“It’s just showing her how good she is and to invite her to try,” he told reporters. “To try and miss sometimes, and sometimes try and achieve something. I really don’t want to control anything in there. She obviously is a very good player, I would even say a fantastic player, and (now) she shows it. Now if she can express it — I think she did in the past — but also from one year to another, the evolution is there as a person.”

On Tuesday, Konta demolished Sloane Stephens, the American who was runner-up to Simona Halep 12 months ago, 6-1, 6-4 to reach the French Open semifinals for the first time. In four previous visits to Paris, Konta had not won a single match and looked all at sea. Now, she is the first British woman to make the last four in Paris since Jo Durie in 1983, and she is one win away from becoming the first British woman to make the final since Sue Barker won the title in 1976.

“To play one of the best players in the world and play at the level I did, I feel really proud of myself,” said Konta, who has now beaten Stephens in all three of their matches — all three coming this year. “Dealing with the conditions out here, it’s super windy, and also (against) an opponent like Sloane who at any point can really run away with a match, I had to be prepared for her to raise her level at any point. I was just pleased I was able to keep her on the back foot a little bit and just try to control the points as much as possible.” Stephens looked well below par, at times barely moving to balls she would normally get to with ease. But such was the standard coming from the other side of the court that the American might still have struggled had she been closer to her best.

“Obviously she played well,” Stephens said. “She was serving really well. I mean, there is not much you can do when someone is playing like that. She definitely played her game today. Just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t get a chance to really get into the match, but sometimes that happens.”

Stephens barely made an impact on Konta’s serve, which, despite the wind, was almost unstoppable. From closing out the first set to when she was up 5-3, 30-0 in the second set, Konta won 19 straight points on serve and Stephens simply did not have an opportunity to exert any pressure. Stephens didn’t break Konta’s serve even once in the match, the first Grand Slam match she has failed to do so since a first-round loss to CoCo Vandeweghe at the 2015 US Open.

The firsts keep coming too. Konta is the first British woman since Virginia Wade (who won the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1972 and Wimbledon in 1977) to reach the semifinals of three Grand Slam events: Australian, Wimbledon and French. Zavialoff, a Frenchman who lives in Switzerland and is the former coach of Stan Wawrinka and Timea Bacsinszky, said he had a feeling Konta was due a big run.

“I think she was always a good player, and that’s what I keep telling her,” he said. “I knew something would happen since I starting working with her. Whether it will happen on clay or after I didn’t know, but I was kind of waiting for it to happen and it did happen on clay.”

For much of her career — at least since she broke through at the top level by reaching the semifinal at the Australian Open in 2016 and the last four at Wimbledon a year later — Konta has talked repeatedly about “the process,” the day-to-day effort to become the best version of herself. Suspicious of the media, she has been far happier discussing baking, or the exploits of her dog, Bono, than talking about almost anything tennis-related or, more pertinently, anything that might reveal more than the basics about herself.

When she was coached by Michael Joyce, from January to October 2018, she looked lost on court, unsure of the game she should be playing, hesitant in her shot selection. Now, having hired Zavialoff in November last year, she seems free and able to play, more often than not, without thinking — the ultimate goal for every player.

“He’s been great in just encouraging me and inviting me and giving me the space to play the way I want to play and not putting too many restraints or restrictions on myself,” Konta said of Zavialoff after her victory over Stephens.

“And just enjoying that almost self-discovery process of being the player who I want to be and trusting the decisions I make out there. And that’s been a really nice journey to be on and continue to be on, because it makes what I do out there very self-satisfying, because I feel quite — I feel a lot of ownership over it, which is a really nice place to be.”

Konta will play either the prodigiously talented left-hander Marketa Vondrousova from the Czech Republic or Croatia’s Petra Martic in the semifinals on Thursday. If she can repeat the performance she produced against Stephens, anything is possible.

“What I’d like to say is I can’t tell a player or promise a player that this player will win a Grand Slam,” Zavialoff said. “What I know is that she will be tough to beat. So if anyone from the other players manages to do that, good for them. And if not? Then…”

If not, then Britain might be looking at a first female Grand Slam champion since Wade won Wimbledon in 1977. As former world No. 1 and current ESPN analyst Chris Evert said on Eurosport: “She would’ve beaten anybody the way she played today.”