The remarkable second round Wimbledon match between Johanna Konta and Donna Vekic was the moment that “Jo-Ko” followed in the footsteps of Tim Henman and Andy Murray and really arrived as a home hero (or heroine), putting the Centre Court crowd through the emotional wringer before emerging victorious 10-8 in the third and final set. And in doing so, she may have begun a rivalry with Vekic that in years to come could develop into one of the most significant in the women’s game.
Konta and Vekic had met only a few weeks before in the final at Nottingham, one of the traditional women’s warm-up events for Wimbledon, where Konta won the first set but eventually succumbed in three sets, which prevented her from becoming the first British woman to win a WTA event on home soil since Virginia Wade 40 years ago. Consequently, when the two women met again in the second round at Wimbledon and Konta once more took the first set, the fear was that the pattern would be repeated and Vekic would again ultimately claim victory. The fact that she did not was down to Konta’s sheer fighting spirit, which, more than any technical ability, wins over Wimbledon crowds.
It is hard to recall a better women’s singles match at Wimbledon in recent years, especially in the early rounds, and perhaps even harder to imagine there being a better one in the rest of this year’s tournament. The main reason for that was that between them Konta and Vekic produced a show of serving that ranks among the finest ever seen in a women’s match.
Unlike in men’s tennis, where it can be hard to break serve even once in a match (as Aljaz Bedene and Ivo Karlovic proved again in their first round match this week), in women’s tennis the serve can often be little more than the first shot, the start of a rally, rather than an intimidatingly powerful weapon in its own right. That was demonstrated at the French Open final in Paris last month. Jelena Ostapenko’s awesome forehand may have blasted Simona Halep off court, but Ostapenko was no more capable of easily retaining her serve than Halep was, with the result that there were numerous breaks of serve throughout the match and Ostapenko fittingly won it by breaking Halep yet again at the end of the third set.
The Konta-Vekic match was almost the polar opposite, with both women proving that they have one of the best serves in the women’s game. Thus it was that after some early breaks in the first and second sets, they went almost the entire second half of the match (about 90 minutes or so) without breaking each other again. It was only at the very end – right at the death – that Konta finally broke Vekic again to claim victory.
Such consistently powerful and accurate serving is extremely rare in the women’s game, but, as in so many great men’s matches (including the peerless 2008 Wimbledon final between Federer and Nadal), the result was to ratchet up the tension to almost unbearable levels, with every single point assuming potentially huge significance. This is when the uniquely sadistic nature of tennis’s scoring system, whereby you have to win a game that has gone to deuce by two clear points, really makes itself apparent. Towards the end of the third set, there were several games where Vekic went love-30 down before rescuing the situation with another series of serves that were either superbly struck, superbly placed or both.
It was not only in their impressive serving that Konta and Vekic seemed so alike. They are both tall but often get down low to hit ground strokes, especially winners, so much so that the phrase that kept coming to mind was “Crouching Tigers” (or at least “crouching tennis players”). There were also hidden drop-shots, particularly from Vekic, as she sought to mix things up and prevent Konta from ever feeling entirely comfortable on the baseline.
Finally, of course, Konta won by taking her second match point, and it was then that the second most striking element of the match, after the stunning serving, really came to the fore. As they both came together at the net, Konta and Vekic avoided the usual hand-clasp beloved of modern sportsmen and women (as if they were Roman gladiators in the kind of sword and sandal movies in which the gesture was first developed) and instead embraced each other heartily. Then, when Vekic began to cry, Konta held her even tighter, rightly recognising afterwards that she could easily have been the one requiring comforting after such a tight and taut struggle. It was reminiscent of Angelique Kerber’s tribute to Serena Williams when she won the Australian Open last year, and a reminder that sportswomanship is often far superior to mere sportsmanship.
This was only the second match between Konta and Vekic, but given that both matches have been tight three-setters on grass there is every chance that they will meet again at Wimbledon in the years to come. While they may have a long way to go before they can match the drama and longevity of the other great rivalries in women’s tennis, from Lenglen-Wills to Navratilova-Evert, they none the less showed in this one epic contest that they could be among the top female performers at Wimbledon for the next five years or more.