There’s predictable then there’s unpredictable… and then there’s the 2019 Roland Garros Women’s Final.
Between Ash Barty and Marketa Vondrousova, you could hardly get a more unlikely pairing in the French Open final. These women didn’t come to Paris as front-runners, nor dark horses, nor sentimental favourites. No, they came to Paris as the only top 10 player with no clay record to speak of, and a 19-year-old who had only recently cracked the top 40 – and yet one of them will leave a champion. On paper, it doesn’t make sense, and yet when taking into consideration the wild ride the WTA tour has been on in 2019, it fits in perfectly.
So who will it be lifting the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup? Read on to find out.
Marking a first major final appearance for both players, the over-arching narrative for both players is fairly similar: win, and their life changes forever. That said, there are a few more unique plot points to follow.
For Barty, a win catapults her to second in the WTA rankings – just 136 points behind Naomi Osaka – and would represent the culmination of one of the more improbable stories in recent tennis history. Despite reaching as high as no. 2 in the junior rankings, Barty’s career seemed over before it really began when she quit tennis in 2015 as an 18-year-old, deciding instead to take up professional cricket back home in Australia. To miss a year of development at such a crucial age, only to come back and be one of the most well-rounded players in the game is one thing, but to top it with a grand slam title? Well, that’s just ridiculous.
For Vondrousova, a win moves her ahead of a fairly long line of promising young talents and puts her on the fast-track to stardom. At 19 years, 11 months and 11 days, she would be the youngest female major champion since Svetlana Kuznetsova won the 2004 US Open, and with a possible high of 11 in the rankings (one ahead of Serena Williams), she would be well-positioned to keep making noise for years to come.
Doing more than enough to impress on their way to the semi-finals, things changed markedly for both Barty and Vondrousova once they got there, with both squeaking out wins in performances that were not entirely convincing.
For Barty, it took three incredibly topsy-turvy sets to get past Amanda Anisimova. Taking advantage of the American’s nerves to race out to a 5-0 lead, Barty squandered two set points at 15-40 in Anisimova’s next service game before completely choking away the set in a tiebreaker. Regaining enough composure, the Australian managed to come back from breaks in both sets to out-play her opponent, and yet she never looked quite as comfortable as she did before her game first went walkabout. Now the stage has gotten even bigger, and it’s fair to wonder if again the burden of expectation might get to her.
Yet to drop a set this tournament, it would certainly seem like Vondrousova is very in-form, but it comes with the disclaimer that neither her quarterfinal against Petra Martic, nor her semi against Johanna Konta were entirely convincing. In both matches, Vondrousova could have – indeed should have – lost her unblemished record, and while she certainly had a part to play in averting disaster, it’s fair to suggest it had as much to do with the drop in her opponent’s level as it did in hers. If she needs to make any similar escapes here, can she count on getting similarly lucky?
Leading the head-to-head 2-0 courtesy of victories in Birmingham ’17 and Cincy ’18, Barty comes into this one the favourite, but much has changed for Vondrousova in 2019, and that makes this a very close match to call.
Two players who both pride themselves on their variety, one guarantee is that this match will not be boring. This will be a match of manoeuvring, both in terms of court position and shot placement, the winner being able to maintain their patience while also mixing-in some well-timed aggression.
However, while the overall strategy might be the same, the tactics employed by each player are going to be very different. Vondrousova’s game is entirely built around her weight-of-shot – not necessarily blasting the cover off the ball, but getting it deep with some healthy loop and spin (particularly on her lefty forehand) to dislodge opponents from the baseline, either forcing them into weak replies she can finish, or back far enough to execute a drop shot. It’s a game very much suited to clay, and similarly to the Czech’s previous six opponents, Barty could find herself playing off the back foot, and struggling to match her consistency.
In response, the Australian will have to get creative – good thing that’s her strong suit. As is often the case for her, the key shot will be her slice backhand, which she’ll need to use to nullify the Vondrousova forehand, ideally getting her on the stretch, but at least doing enough to reset the point. Adding to that, she has the biggest weapon of either player in her forehand, and with it she should be ambitious in targeting the Czech’s backhand, as it is far more likely to elicit weak responses, which she’d can punish by closing to net like few others on the WTA tour.
Additionally, expect serve and mental toughness to play a big role for both players. Vondrousova has hovered right around 70% first serves made in her past two matches, and she’ll need to do so again here to relieve some of the pressure Barty will look to exert by racing through her own service games, with the Australian possessing one of the better serves on tour. If either woman falters things could quickly go south, and even more so if they let the spotlight of this completely alien moment get to them. Both Barty (who showed a lot of nerves in her last match) and Vondrousova (making her Philippe Chatrier debut) would do well to remember the Billie Jean King quote that “pressure is a privilege” – their ability to live up to it could make all the difference.
Vondrousova in three. About as hard a match to predict as it gets, in the end I’m siding with the player I believe more likely to sustain her level for three sets. Barty definitely has the goods to win, but I believe the Czech will be an incredibly tough opponent to shake, and even if she drops her first set of the tournament, she’ll simply keep coming, which is why Marketa Vondrousova will be your 2019 Roland Garros Women’s Champion.