There is a certain smugness around Roland Garros, a hint of the I-told-you-sos. That Johanna Konta is back in a grand slam quarter-final after two tough years seems to have taken nobody by surprise.
But the fact that she has managed to do it at the French Open on clay, her least successful surface over recent years, has the great and the good licking their lips.
Today, she plays Sloane Stephens on the main show court. She is the talk of the town as she faces last year’s finalist and the US Open champion of 2017. On paper, Konta would be the favourite – they have played twice before and Konta has won both times. But Stephens on clay in a grand slam is a different prospect to the woman Konta faced in Rome nearly three weeks ago.
Dimitri Zavialoff, below left, the coach to Britain’s No 1, has been credited with turning her career around in the eight months they have been together and yet, to hear him talk, it sounds as if he has done little at all.
“I think when a decision comes from a player it is more valuable to the player than if it’s reproducing something that somebody is telling them,” he said, inadvertently talking himself out of a job. “I really like the player to make their own choices and also it’s so difficult to know how a player is during a match and I prefer the long-term idea of helping in some practice and then maybe the player will use what we are trying to do – or not – but because of Jo, her own decisions are the best.”
Yet, the quietly spoken Frenchman looks to be the perfect match for his charge. Like Konta, he does not like to give too much away in public, but like Konta, his belief in what he is doing never wavers. And his belief in Konta knows no bounds.
“For me she is a champion definitely so she already has it,” he said. “If she wins the tournament or not, who knows?”
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, three times the winner at Roland Garros, is not at all surprised that Konta finds herself in her first Paris quarter-final. Everyone has always known that the world No 26 is both a great athlete and a great striker of the ball and that she is putting that together on clay strikes Sanchez Vicario as perfectly normal. “I’m not surprised,” she said. “I think she has the game to be able to play well on clay – I just think she has to believe it, that she can do well and she is doing it right now.
“She has no pressure because she is not a contender, nobody is talking about her so she has no pressure, so that helps her to play very well her game. Her game is suiting very well the clay, she’s having more patience, she has more variety so I’m not surprised that she is doing well.”
But Stephens, too, has a game that works on clay. She moves well, she defends well and she can, on her day, hit winners to a band playing. That makes the likes of Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport believe that she is the favourite for today and that, should she win, she is the favourite from the bottom half of the draw to reach the final.
“Jo has to play a solid match because Sloane defends so well,” Navratilova said. “Jo has to play a really solid match and pick the right shots to go for it. If she goes for too much, too soon, that will be trouble, and if she waits too long, then also Sloane can go on the offensive too. Sloane has got bigger weapons: she has got a bigger forehand than Jo and she moves better but Jo is more solid on both sides.”
The weather forecast is not good for today and humidity and rain will slow the conditions down considerably. When Konta walloped Donna Vekic on Sunday, the temperatures were in the 30s and the courts were quick – life will be harder today. “Sloane’s going to get a lot of balls back into play,” Davenport said. “With the conditions. I think that helps Sloane, slows it down a little bit for her, but who knows. If Konta gets hot and is hitting her spots, I feel like she could beat anyone. But Sloane is tough out on these courts.”
The favourite for the title, though, is still Simona Halep, the defending champion. She took just 45 minutes to demolish Iga Swiatek, the 18-year-old from Poland who won the Wimbledon junior title last year, 6-1, 6-0. Swiatek was allowed to win just 21 points in her brief spell on court.
Halep will play Amanda Animisova of the United States for a place in the semi-final while Madison Keys, the 6-2, 6-4 winner over Katerina Siniakova, will take on Australia’s Ash Barty. Barty took 90 minutes to beat Sofia Kenin, the woman who stunned Serena Williams on Saturday, 6-3, 3-6, 6-0.