Unseen. Not sponsored. undefeated.
Marketa Vondrousova is the women’s champion at Wimbledon and her life is about to change.
The 24-year-old’s talent has never been in doubt, but she couldn’t in her wildest dreams imagine ending her 2023 challenge like this with a 6-4, 6-4 victory over one of the pre-tournament favourites, Ons Jabeur.
She was – in her words – “crushed” by Ashleigh Barty in the 2019 French Open final as a teenager and was silver medalist to Belinda Bencic at the Tokyo Olympics two years ago. So she’s been in major finals before.
But on grass? Across her four previous visits to Wimbledon, she had won one match. Her career record on the surface, even with these seven wins in the past two weeks, is: played 22, won 11, lost 11.
She does not have a kit sponsor after being dropped at the end of her four-year contract with Nike last year and is the first unseeded woman to win this title. The last woman to reach a Wimbledon final unseeded was Billie Jean King, who was still in college (and still known as Billie Jean Moffitt) when she lost to Margaret Court in 1963. When she and Vondrousova crossed paths after Saturday’s final , American legend said: “You are the first ever unseeded winner. I love it!”
No one expected this, least of all Vondrousova and her coach Jan Mertl, and they will get tattoos together in the near future after making a bet before Wimbledon.
“I think I’ll choose him,” she said. “Maybe we’ll get the same one. We talked before the tournament and he said: ‘Yeah, so maybe if you win a grand slam, I’ll do it’. Then this happens…”
Vondrousova’s story is about patience and perseverance. She has lost count of the number of tattoos already on her body, but there is one in particular on her arm that reads: “No rain, no flowers”. That sums her up pretty perfectly. She has been through a lot to get here.
She won her first major at the age of 17, in only her second tournament, and it has been a seven-year wait for the next title.
During that time, as well as the highlights at Roland Garros and in Japan, she has suffered three major injuries – two of them to her wrist.
She missed six months of 2022, including Wimbledon, after undergoing wrist surgery. She still came to London last July, where she supported her doubles partner Miriam Kolodziejova in the qualification and then enjoyed the city. But her primary goal at the time was to be out of the cast on her arm before marrying her partner Stepan Simek on July 16. It should be the first wedding anniversary tomorrow.
Vondrousova returned to action in October, ranked outside the world’s top 100. She reached the third round at the Australian Open and the second round at the French Open. Her warm-up for Wimbledon was in Berlin, where she lost in the third round to a top-10 player in Maria Sakkari.
“I had a cast last year at this time,” she says. “It was impossible (to imagine this happening). I saw my best friend here playing qualifiers (qualifiers). I was a tourist.
“When I came back from injury, I didn’t know what would happen if I could play at that level again. This seems impossible. Even on grass I didn’t play well before. I think it was the most impossible grand slam for me to win, so I didn’t even think about it.
“When we came, I just thought, ‘Let’s try to win a few games.’ Now this happened – it’s crazy.”
After spending most of the fortnight looking after their cat Frankie back in Prague, Stepan flew over to be on Center Court for the final after they found a cat sitter. Vondrousova told us she plans to spend some of her £2.35 million ($3.1 million) prize money on some fish for Frankie.
Stepan didn’t show much emotion in the player’s box during the match, and had his hand resting over his mouth during some of the most exciting moments. Athletics asked if that calm was superstition.
“He’s like that all the time,” said the new Wimbledon champion, smiling. “I think when I got to the checkout, he was crying. I saw him afterwards and he was crying a lot.
“I think that’s the first emotion I’ve seen from him in the eight years (of our relationship),” she laughed. “I think he cried on the wedding day too, but that was it for the eight years, so… that was it.”
Her mother stayed away for fear of jinxing the result, having been there in Berlin last month when Vondrousova also lost in the doubles final to Katerina Siniakova.
So how did a player with no previous pedigree beat Jabeur – the No. 6 seed, also the runner-up here last year and the most dominant player on this surface for the past three years?
Well, again, patience played a big part.
The thing about Vondrousova is that she is a great returner and a brilliant shot maker. Only three players in the top 50 have a better record in 2023 when it comes to percentage of return points won (46.7) — world No. 1 Iga Swiatek, fourth-ranked Jessica Pegula and No. 10 Daria Kasatkina.
Before this match, Jabeur’s serve had been almost impenetrable. She had won 90 percent of her service games in her run to the final, but Vondrousova succeeded where virtually all of her previous opponents had failed, breaking Jabeur again and again. The Tunisian won 40 percent (four out of 10) of his service games today. Vondrousova’s return was just too good.
Jabeur admitted as much afterwards: “Serving well didn’t help. Marketa returned every ball. Even though I made a good serve, she was there. I wish I was able to hold, especially in the first set. Maybe it could have been a different battle.”
The very first point of the match oozed confidence from the Czech side of the court, Vondrousova played a brilliant lob that clipped the baseline. Jabeur grabbed an early break to lead 2-0, but her opponent hit back immediately. She was clinical as she held break points throughout the two sets, taking advantage of six out of seven. Deep, flat returns on Jabeur’s serve caused problems, and there was so much spin on her shots that it made it difficult for her opponent to play her natural, exuberant game.
From 4-2 up, Jabeur won just two points in the rest of the first set as Vondrousova dominated. She also took that into the second set and broke Jabeur again to 1-0.
It wasn’t just the Tunisian’s serve that had to be regrouped. Her confidence was shaken and it seemed that all the talk of her winning a first grand slam and being the first North African and first Arab might have gotten to her. She made uncharacteristic mistakes and hit the net far too often.
Down 1-0 in the second, Jabeur did brilliantly to rally from 40-0 down to break right back. Then she held her serve for the first time in nearly half an hour to lead 2-1. Again she broke Vondrousova. Was this the moment everything changed? The crowd was on her side and it felt like the momentum was shifting.
But it turned out to be short-lived. Vondrousova broke back to make it 3-2 and took the decider to go 5-4 ahead (her sixth break of the match) before serving out the championship.
Jabeur said before the match that she “felt a lot of pressure, felt a lot of stress”. Trying to warm up in a black tracksuit, completely forgetting Wimbledon’s almost-all-white rule, may not have helped her nerves. Wimbledon told her to go back in and change.
It is now three grand slam final defeats in 12 months for Jabeur and this will be a bitter defeat to deal with. “I think this is the most painful loss of my career,” she said on the court when the match was over. “It’s going to be a tough day for me today, but I’m not going to give up. I want to come back stronger and win this tournament.”
She received support from two very different figures after the match: the Princess of Wales and four-time grand slam champion Kim Clijsters.
The princess gave her a hug and encouraged her to be strong and to come back and finally win Wimbledon. “I told her hugs are always welcome and it was a very nice moment,” Jabeur said.
“Kim just told me (she lost her first four finals). I love Kim so much. She is a great inspiration to me. I grew up watching her a little. The fact that she takes the time to give me advice and really hug me, always be there for me, I think that is priceless.”
Later, Jabeur analyzed the final in more detail, saying: “I think Marketa played the right game to win this final. I think she just put the ball in, slices a lot. I think it was a completely different game than the last three I had.”
Jabeur had gotten used to the big hitting from Petra Kvitova, Elena Rybakina and Aryna Sabalenka in the previous three rounds, and Vondrousova’s slower forehand (5 mph slower on average compared to the other three) really caught the No. 6 seed out.
“So maybe it was very difficult for me to adapt to her rhythm,” says Jabeur. “Plus the pressure and stress in the final. I didn’t think she made many errors (12 unforced errors, compared to Jabeurs’ 31). I thought she served well. I think she might have played a perfect finale for herself.
Vondrousova also runs all day and her foot speed is breathtaking. With the grass playing slower, aided on Saturday by Center Court’s roof being closed due to inclement weather, she has been able to neutralize her opponents’ power and get to just about anything.
She agreed that she benefited from the roof being closed.
“Yes, I think it’s better for me. The roof can help you with your serve. You don’t have to focus so much on the wind. I feel like everything is the same on all sides. I think you just must focus on the game, not on the wind, nor on the sun.
“I think it’s a good thing. I’m used to playing indoors. We train indoors in Prague in the winter. I always play well indoors. I was like, yeah, maybe this would help me.”
Jabeur must be sick of the sight of her. Vondrousova has now inflicted three defeats on her in 2023 – something no player has ever done before against the Tunisian in a single season.
Vondrousova started her campaign out in the desert on Court Seven, knocking out four seeds to reach the semifinals: Veronika Kudermetova (No. 12), Donna Vekic (No. 21), Marie Bouzkova (No. 32) and Pegula (No. 4). Against wildcard and crowd favorite Elina Svitolina in the last four, she produced one of the shots of the tournament – a squash-style Roger Federer-esque flat slice forehand, which you can read more about here.
“I was kind of open-minded (throughout the tournament),” she says of her remarkable run. “I didn’t have much stress until today. I just think you have to believe in yourself. I just tried not to think too much about the title and all.
“But when it was 40-0 (in the last game), I couldn’t breathe. I just thought to myself, “Just pass”.
Soon it was.
Wimbledon has a new women’s champion – and soon she will have a new tattoo to show for it.
Not bad for a player who had only won a solitary match on these courts prior to the 2023 tournament.
(Top photo: Julian Finney/Getty Images)