Chris Evert thought it was one of the best clay court matches ever played. Sloane Stephens thought there was absolutely nothing she could do. Johanna Konta was just plain happy.
She had every right to be, too. She had just beaten Stephens 6-1, 6-4 in 70 clinical minutes to reach the third grand slam semi-final of her career. She had matched Jo Durie’s effort at Roland Garros in 1983 and she now stands one match away from the French Open final. But it was the manner of her victory that had everyone reeling.
Konta was focused and ruthless. She served like a sniper: only five points dropped on her first serve throughout the match and only one dropped in the second set (a double fault as she served for the match). She pasted the lines, dragging Stephens all over the court to open up space and create opportunities. The backhand was fearsome, the intent was deadly and she did what she set out to do: she never gave Stephens any time to think or attack. Konta never let up, not for a moment. She made Stephens, the world No 7 and last year’s runner-up, look sluggish, lost and helpless.
“That was one of the best clay court matches – ever,” Evert pronounced on Eurosport. “I could not see this coming. But all credit to Jo Konta. I’m speechless. Not even giving her a glimpse... Jo Konta I take my hat off to you. Playing like this, I don’t think there is anyone who could beat her.”
Much as she has not shown it in the past couple of years, Konta has always believed in this ability to crush any opponent put in front of her. Sometimes she is utterly dominant; sometimes she has to scrap her way to victory. But she has never wavered in the belief that she can beat anyone.
“I’ve always said that whenever I step out on to the court, I’m always going to have a chance,” Konta said. “I’m always going to have a shot. I don’t think any player on tour can go on court against me and feel like they’ve definitely got it.
“I definitely back myself and my ability that way. But then I also accept a lot of things: that it’s not all on my racket. I also accept that my opponent has a say in things out there, as well.
“More than anything, I’m enjoying just playing that game out there.”
On her day, Stephens is all but unplayable. She is fast, she strikes the ball fantastically well and she defends as if her life were at stake. But not every day is her day and there are times when she checks out of the competition as matches run away from her.
Yet, in big matches, Stephens usually locks in on the opposition and pays attention with impressive results (she was the US Open champion of 2017, after all). But against Konta, she was not given the chance to compete: if she could not get near the ball, she stood no chance of winning the point. And Konta kept creating acres of empty space into which she could wallop a winner. She was doing it with metronomic regularity.
“Obviously she played well,” Stephens said. “She was serving really well. There is not much you can do when someone is playing like that. ”
Apart from having to fend off one break point in the opening game of the match, Konta was never threatened, racking up 25 errors to a miserly 13 unforced errors. Nothing was going to distract her or deflect her from her path to the last four. Now that she is there, she not only has the experience of reaching the semi-finals at the Australian Open in 2016 and Wimbledon in 2017 to call on but also the memories of what it took to fight through the tough times.
After that Wimbledon run, she reached a career-high ranking of No 4 in the world but then her form disintegrated and her position in the pecking order plummeted. After Wimbledon last year, she was down to No 50 and as her clay court season began last month, she was still only ranked No 47. After her work in Paris, she is up to No 17 with the prospect of getting back into top ten if she wins the title.
“For sure there’s got to be some benefit that I’ll be feeling from being in this position before,” she said. “But more than anything, I think, is also the different positions I have been in so far this year. Those were some tough situations during Fed Cup [over Easter], as well, a lot of matches I played where I was down, as well. I have definitely really had a lot of good [experiences] this year, which can only help me in situations like these.”
That helps but, then again, so does the ability to play one of the best clay court matches Chris Evert has ever seen.