Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic, among the most unlikely of Wimbledon champions, is unlikely no more.
On Saturday, Vondrousova beat Ons Jabeur, a trailblazing Tunisian and a heavy favorite, in straight sets, 6-4, 6-4, stunning herself, her family and friends, and the tennis world in the process.
Vondrousova, 24, became the first unseeded player to win Wimbledon and the latest in a long line of Czech-born women to lift the most important trophy in the sport, going back to Martina Navratilova’s domination of Wimbledon in the 1980s, after Navratilova had defected to the United States.
Like Navratilova, who watched the match from a box, Vondrousova is a left-handed player with a nasty slice serve that she used throughout the afternoon in the tensest moments when Jabeur tried to take control of the match or mount yet another comeback.
The similarities with Navratilova, an aggressive serve-and-volleyer who burst into the sport as a teenager, mostly end there.
Vondrousova, who won an error-filled match that made up for what it lacked in quality with surprise, is now the ultimate under-the-radar player after going three-for-three at crushing tennis fairy tales. She beat Naomi Osaka at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, just days after Osaka lit the Olympic flame as a favorite to win a gold medal on home soil.
On Thursday Vondrousova beat Elina Svitolina, a new mother from Ukraine who mounted a spirited run to the semifinals that inspired the people of her nation as they defend themselves against Russia’s invasion.
On Saturday afternoon it was Jabeur’s turn to have her dream crushed by Vondrousova’s tricky and unorthodox game in a tournament that Vondrousova said was impossible to win, given her scant history of success on grass.
“When we came I was just like, ‘Try to win couple of matches,’” Vondrousova said. “Now this happened, it’s crazy,” Vondrousova said.
She had plenty of company asking the same thing, considering she had a cast on her wrist following surgery during Wimbledon last year. This time, Vondrousova’s husband opted not to come watch her play here until Saturday, choosing instead to stay home and take care of their hairless Sphynx cat.
After Vondrousova beat Svitolina in the semifinal though, Stepan Simek scrambled to find a cat-sitter and caught a flight to watch his wife play in the Wimbledon final. On Sunday they planned to celebrate their first anniversary.
“There will be one day we will have grandkids and I’m just looking forward to the day when I can tell the story of their grandmother winning Wimbledon,” Simek said.
Vondrousova’s best friend and doubles partner, Miriam Kolodziejova, said she did not believe Vondrousova could win the singles title.
“It’s like a dream for us,” she said.
For Jabeur, the loss in a second straight Wimbledon final against an opponent who had accomplished far less than other women she beat on the way to the precipice of tennis history, was nothing less than heartbreaking. Jabeur has now lost three of the last five Grand Slam finals, falling just short of becoming the first woman of Arab descent and from Africa to win the most important championships in tennis.
Like most tennis players she has long dreamed of winning Wimbledon and last year used a picture of the women’s trophy as the lock screen on her phone.
Jabeur started fast, breaking a nervous Vondrousova’s serve repeatedly in the first set. She played tight from the beginning but held a 4-2 lead in the first set when she began to unravel, sending forehands into the net and floating backhands beyond the baseline.
Before she knew it, Jabeur was down a set and had lost her serve to start the second. For her part, Vondrousova was doing all she needed to, keeping the ball in play, whipping her curling, spinning shots that were so different than the power which Jabeur had faced in her recent matches.
Jabeur steadied herself, and even surged to another lead in the second set at 3-1, but lost her ability to recover once more, struggled to find the court and sent too many balls into the middle of the net. She lost five of the last six games.
Vondrousova finally ended Jabeur’s nightmarish afternoon with a running backhand volley into the open court, and another woman from Czech Republic was the Wimbledon champion, stunning anyone who might have pictured that scenario but just not with Vondrousova in the starring role.
“My coach told me after the final, he was like, ‘I couldn’t believe how calm you are,’” Vondrousova said. “That was the main key to this title.”
As the ball bounced twice far out of her reach, Jabeur, known as the “Minister of Happiness” for her almost always bright demeanor, pulled her bandanna from her head and began her slow, sad and increasingly familiar trudge to the net.
Vondrousova was a little late in getting there. She had collapsed on the grass at the end of the final point. She rose to hug Jabeur and soon was back in the middle of the court, kneeling, and trying to figure out how she had pulled off this improbable run. Jabeur sat in her chair and wiped away tears.
There were more during the trophy ceremony, as Jabeur held the runner-up platter in one hand and covered her eyes and her nose with the other.
“This is the most painful loss of my career,” she said, before trying to channel whatever positivity she could muster.
“I am not going to give up, and I am going to come back stronger,” she told a crowd that was finally able to roar for her the way it had been wanting to all afternoon.
For Vondrousova and Czech tennis, the celebrations were just beginning. The Czech Republic, with a population of roughly 10.5 million people, has become a women’s tennis factory unlike anything that exists in the sport. There are eight Czech women in the top 50, most of them, like Vondrousova, in their mid-twenties and younger.
When the tournament began, Petra Kvitova, ranked 10th in the world, seemed like the most likely Czech finalist. A two-time Wimbledon champion in 2011 and 2014, Kvitova had won a grass court tournament in Berlin just weeks before.
Vondrousova had won just two grass court matches and was two years removed from competing at Wimbledon. A month ago though, Vondrousova had watched Karolina Muchova, another talented, inconspicuous Czech woman with a game that defies this era of power tennis, fell just short of winning the French Open. She and Muchova are members of the same tennis club back home, Vondrousova said. And she cried when Muchova lost in three sets to the world No. 1, Iga Swiatek.
Watching Muchova had inspired Vondrousova, who had made the French Open final in 2019 when she was just 19-years-old. Muchova’s career had also gotten sidetracked by injuries but there she was playing on one of the sport’s biggest stages.
Like Muchova, Vondrousova didn’t know at first whether doctors would be able to solve her wrist problem. The injury sidelined her for an extended period, and Simek said it made her appreciate tennis more.
“You just can’t play, play tennis as work, you have to enjoy it, you have to love it,” Simek said. “She really enjoys it and she loves the game. She enjoys even watching the game and I think not many players enjoy it like that.”
At Wimbledon, Muchova lost in the first round, but Vondrousova began a steady march through seven opponents that included five seeded players and several, including Jabeur, who were known for their prowess on grass. In the quarterfinals, with the score in the third set, 4-1, Jessica Pegula had a game point to go ahead, 5-1, but Vondrousova caught fire instead and won the final five games to win the set, 6-4.
Then came her final two matches against opponents playing for causes much larger than themselves, a weight that can both energize and empower but also enervate and burden a player.
Against Vondrousova, both Svitolina and Jabeur arrived on Centre Court tight and flat, shadows of the players who had thrilled crowds and held the promise of being able to pull off a comeback that would be talked about for years, if not decades. On the other side of the net was Vondrousova, a player best known for the body art on her arms, who had made a bet with her coach, Jan Mertl, a former Czech player, that if she won a Grand Slam he would get a tattoo to commemorate the triumph.
Holding her winner’s platter, Vondrousova said they would be heading to the tattoo parlor on Sunday.
David Waldstein contributed reporting.
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