On paper, it was a clear mismatch – Bojana Jovanovski, world No.45, conqueror of two-time Grand Slam champion Victoria Azarenka in the second round, against 19-year-old Tereza Smitkova, who came to The Championships boasting a solitary win on the WTA tour.
But tennis isn’t played on paper, and out on Court 17 the Czech world No.175 battled her opponent and her volatile emotions for almost three hours to snatch a 4-6, 7-6(5), 10-8 victory that made a mockery of the form book.
Smitkova has punched well above her weight since coming through qualifying to reach the All England Club. The Czech teenager now has three Grand Slam wins to her name, courtesy of creditable victories over doubles world No.1 Su-Wei Hsieh, Topshelf Open champion Coco Wandeweghe and a gutsy display against her Serbian opponent.
For Jovanovski, it can only be hoped that the result acts as a wake-up call. That’s some shout the world No.45 emits as she strikes the ball – not so much a shriek as a mantra. For the uninitiated, it sounds like the word ‘pressure’. Pressure of her own making; a decent description of how events unfolded in a third round match she should, and could, have won comfortably.
Smitkova was her own harshest critic on court, chiding herself time and again after handing back an opening break in the very next game. Her flowing swings measured up against Jovanovski, who struggled to deal with her serve from the outset, but when the Serbian got her on the run she was in trouble. To counter that, Smitkova looked to end the points as early as possible. Errors were inevitable, but drew frowns just the same.
Jovanovski, meanwhile, was happy to work her opponent around the court, answering more questions than she asked and rarely opting for the audacious power game that saw her edge past Azarenka. The opening set remained on serve until Smitkova was serving to stay in it. The pressure told, Smitkova folded, and the Serbian had eased into a one-set lead.
As so often happens for the underdogs in such matches, falling behind seemed to lift the weight from Smitkova’s shoulders. Swinging with greater freedom, she began pushing Jovanovski around the court and broke to lead 4-3, raising the prospect of another unlikely victory. But once again, the pressure played its part – serving for the set at 5-4, she hooked a series of forehands wide to hand back the break and miss her opportunity.
Reprieved, Jovanovski held to love and brought up match point with Smitkova serving at 5-6 – but the Czech stood firm, battling back to take the set into a tie-break and levelled the match with some of her best tennis of the contest.
Jovanovski was in danger of being steamrolled while still playing within herself early in the final set. After seeing a break point come and go at 1-2, Smitkova finally hit the front after a lengthy sixth game for a 4-2 lead. But breaks mean nothing if not consolidated, and the 19-year-old undid her fine work in the next game.
By the end, the match was little more than a battle of nerve. Smitkova, fighting back the tears, gave up breaks to leave Jovanovski the chance to serve out the match at 6-5 and 7-6, only for the Serbian to fall prey to some superb returning. When Smitkova held to lead 8-7, Jovanovski was only reprieved by the Czech’s desperation to put the match beyond doubt. Finally, facing a fifth match point at 9-8, the Serbian rolled in the lightest of second serves and Smitkova dispatched it in style.
Up next for Smitkova is fellow Czech and No.23 seed Lucie Safarova. Whatever happens then, this promises to be a life-changing week for the world No.175. Prior to Wimbledon, her career earnings totalled almost £45,000. Having reached the fourth round of The Championships, she will leave with at least £117,000. For a young player bidding to break onto the WTA tour, the financial boost could not possibly come at a better time; under those circumstances, you’d probably be emotional too.
20:08It brings me no pleasure but it's time to bring the curtain down for another year. Seemed somehow appropriate to leave the last word to Roger Federer. Thanks a billion for reading. What a fortnight, what a final, fast forward to 2015 please...
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