“I never practice that,” says Marketa Vondrousova, laughing. “For me, it just comes naturally.”
Vondrousova talks about a monster shot she hit in the final game of the first set of Thursday’s straight-sets win over Elina Svitolina that took her to a first-ever Wimbledon final.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s a squash-style (though not quite squash-style, as we’ll hear later) forehand on the run that whistles criss-crossing past Svitolina who’s at the net.
Roger Federer used to pull it off from time to time, but it is so rarely seen and something that is only possible if you have exceptional hands and feel.
“I couldn’t play a forehand, so that was the one thing I could do,” Vondrousova continues. “It’s maybe 50-50 whether you make it or not. In fact, I don’t think it’s even 50-50. It’s maybe 30-70 that you can handle it.
“But you can always try.”
Vondrousova is that kind of player. She tries things. They don’t always come off, but against Svitolina they did more times than not and the Ukrainian had no answer to Vondrousova’s seductive mix of spin and slice.
A final against the equally inventive Ons Jabeur on Saturday awaits.
But for those of you who don’t know much about Vondrousova, let’s zoom in on one of the tournament photos to get to know you better…
First and foremost, Vondrousova is a 24-year-old from the Czech Republic, a powerhouse of a tennis nation — especially on the women’s side. A left-hander, she uses a wicked streak of spin that four years ago took her to the French Open final at the age of 19. She lost in straight sets to Ashleigh Barty but reached a career-high ranking of No. 14 after. At 17, she won her first main-tour event in only her second tournament.
She is ranked No. 42 now and is working her way back to the top of the game after a terrible 2022, in which she was out of competition between April and October after undergoing wrist surgery (the second of her career and one of the most feared injuries) for a tennis player). She spent last year’s Wimbledon with her wrist in a cast, supporting her friend Miriam Kolodziejova to play in the qualifiers and live the life of a tourist. Shopping, going on the London Eye, that sort of thing.
Vondrousova has so many tattoos she’s lost count and a cat named Frankie that her husband Stepan has been looking after. However, the Vondrousova family has found a cat sitter for the weekend so that Stepan can fly over to London for the final.
On court, she is a very exciting player to watch, with a variety of spins and angles that boggle the minds of her opponents.
All of this is covered in Thursday’s sensational shooting…
Svitolina serves to stay in the first set of the semifinals, down 3-5 in games but leading 30-0. If she wins this point, she will have three game points to force Vondrousova to serve out the set.
Vondrousova is pulled wide by Svitolina’s serve and is almost out of bounds as she hits her backhand return.
Svitolina tries to take advantage of it by hitting a backhand towards the opposite corner.
Vondrousova chases after the ball and begins her preparation for the shot.
“Look how when she runs, she reaches her racket hand,” says Craig O’Shannessy, an ATP Tour strategy coach who has also worked with players such as Novak Djokovic, the men’s world No. 1.
“It starts to go up and you see her stay there for a second and just judge and measure it. Having her hand up like that gives her more control. So for a step or two it just stays in the same position. The does not move Her left hand remains in exactly the same position for a step or two.
“She starts high, comes down, and actually it looks crazy, but if you prepare like she does, it’s really not that difficult a shot. Getting the preparation perfect is the hard part.
“(Roger) Federer used to hit it a lot. Yeah, it’s a Fed special, that one. It’s like a squash shot, but it’s not quite, because when you hit it in squash, you want to hit it flatter.
“What’s key here is backspin, which is control spin in tennis – not topspin.
“To get that rear wheel, you have to use your wrist. It’s all wrist.”
This shot is even more impressive since Vondrousova has had surgery on that wrist.
“The key is the angle she comes in,” O’Shannessy continues. “Which means she both cuts under it and gets around it. That’s what gives it backspin and means she can really swing hard on it. This is definitely an all-or-nothing endeavor.”
What are the biggest challenges with this kind of shot? “Sometimes you can get too much backspin and float it and it just keeps going up,” O’Shannessy replies.
“Sometimes you cut down on it and go to the net, but she got that mix right. Coming down through it to get backspin but not too much so it’s all there. Although the arm still moves quite far, it is a wrist shot.
“Most players would try to lob here – typically when you’re in the defensive position, it’s a good idea to throw a lob up. That would be option 1.
“Or maybe she hits it straight at Svitolina and gets another ball, but this one is hit very hard and it’s a frozen rope – it just goes straight and she got the height just right.”
The audience gasps in admiration as an excited Martina Navratilova, another lefty born and raised in what was then Czechoslovakia, says admiringly: “Cut and dice baby.”
Vondrousova wins the next few points en route to winning the game and thus the set. The match didn’t follow long after, and with one shot the Center Court crowd saw exactly what Vondrousova is all about.
Next up is the final against Jabeur where Vondrousova will be hoping to hit some more outrageous winners.
Just don’t expect to see her practicing them.
(Photo: Robert Prange/Getty Images)