Marketa Vondrousova: ‘I am not the underdog any more. I have to get used to that’

In the early days of the grass season this June, Marketa Vondrousova and her doubles partner for the week, her Czech compatriot Katerina Siniakova, navigated their way to the final in Berlin. At that point, Vondrousova’s record in finals, across singles and doubles alike, was not exactly ideal. Their eventual three-set defeat marked her seventh straight loss when it matters most. In the aftermath, not even her mother, Jindriska, could hide her frustration.

“They came for the finals and she said, like: ‘I don’t want to be second all the time,’” says Vondrousova, laughing, as she recalls the conversation with her mother. “I was like: ‘OK, it’s good even to be in a final. Come on, Mum!’ And she’s like: ‘Yeah, but I don’t want to be second all the time.’”

A few weeks later, the 24-year-old contested a completely different type of clincher: the Wimbledon singles final. In the most intense moment of her career, Vondrousova’s conversation with her mother crossed her mind and provided some levity to help serve for the title against Ons Jabeur.

Her path from the small Czech town of Sokolov to the Wimbledon champion’s dinner has had its difficulties. Unlike many of her peers, tennis was initially only a hobby and she played two or three times a week in her home town, while also taking a two-hour drive to Prague with her grandfather each week to practise. By the age of 15, though, she was already one of the most promising youngsters in the Czech Republic and moved to Prague alone to pursue her dreams. Before her 16th birthday, she had become the No 1 junior in the world.

Her parents were unable to finance the prohibitive expenses of her career but Vondrousova’s junior success attracted attention. When she was about 14, her parents signed an agreement with a manager, Vladimir Houdek, which, she says, provided her with financial support in return for a percentage of her future earnings: “My parents did sign it because it was a lot of money to put into tennis and they were working so we didn’t have much money for tennis, coaches and stuff. So we had to sign it.”

The contract, Vondrousova notes, provided her the funding she needed to make it on the main tour. After her successful junior career, she transitioned on to the tour in remarkable fashion by winning her first WTA title in Biel, only her second WTA main draw event, from qualifying. But those early decisions came at a cost. At 18, she had grown tired of her situation. Vondrousova and her family decided to buy Houdek out of his contract.

“I decided I wanted to end it so I had to buy him [out] for the contract to finish. So it was crazy times. But I think I did a good thing because he pushed me so much about tournaments and everything. So then it was a bit stressful and I couldn’t do what, you know, what I wanted. So I feel like it was a good choice.”

Vondrousova says the point of contention with Houdek was the pressure she felt he put her under to compete in tournaments, which she claims meant risking injury. Houdek has previously denied her claims and described her first public comments on the split as “nonsense and blatant lies”.

Marketa Vondrousova
Marketa Vondrousova says she cannot hide from the spotlight now she is a grand slam champion. Photograph: Larry Marano/Shutterstock

In 2018, Vondrousova paid off the contract with almost all the money she had accumulated in her career. She says she arrived at the US Open that year with enough money to last only until the end of the season, uncertain about what would happen next. Somehow, she made it all the way to the fourth round, earning $266,000 in by far her best grand slam showing at that point.

“I had money till the [end of the] season,” says Vondrousova. “I played fourth round at the US Open that year. So that helped me a lot. I think if I were to lose [in] the first round, it was going to be very tough. So I didn’t think about it.”

A year later, a brilliant, breakout spring ended with her reaching her first grand slam final at the 2019 French Open. The most joyous period of her career at that point, though, also turned out to be grim. There was first the difficulty of dealing with her one-sided loss to Ash Barty as her world changed overnight and expectations rose.

“It was such a great tournament and I didn’t even enjoy it,” she says. “So I said to myself if this happened again, I would just want to enjoy it so much because I was 19 and I played a final so it was crazy, but I feel I just put so much pressure on me after and also the people just expect me to win everything and it was kind of crazy time.”

It was also marred by tragedy. During her run, Vondrousova’s longtime boyfriend, Stepan Simek, now her husband, learned that his father had died. Simek, who had been in the Czech Republic at the start of the event, had attempted to keep the news from her as she advanced through the rounds. Each time she asked him to join her in Paris, he came up with excuses for why he couldn’t. Eventually, though, he had to tell her the truth.

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“I told him: ‘You have to come, you have to be here.’ And he was like: ‘I can’t go.’ No, I was like: ‘What’s happened and what’s happening?’ He told me this so it was kind of like the happiest times and then the saddest times also. Everything happened.”

Her subsequent seasons were turbulent. As she tried to follow up her first grand slam final, Vondrousova had surgery that forced her out for the rest of 2019; she enjoyed a brilliant run to the 2020 Olympic final in Tokyo, which after her experience in Paris she was determined to relish even while playing in front of an empty stadium; she then had another wrist operation in 2022, her confidence capitulating between layoffs.

If she could remain healthy, it seemed only a matter of time before Vondrousova put her game together and rebounded. But not on grass. Grass was, in her words, impossible. She had started the grass-court season in 2023 with a 2-10 main draw record on the surface. “I didn’t play good on grass before so I felt like: ‘Let’s try and I’ll play some matches without stress because I don’t care about grass,’” she laughs. “But then I was winning …”

Marketa Vondrousova lifts Wimbledon trophy
Marketa Vondrousova lifts the Wimbledon trophy in July; grass had been a surface she described as impossible. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

The key to her victory, though, is something that she cannot possibly replicate. She went into Wimbledon with no expectations and surprised herself each step of the way. It was not until match point, she says, that she actually thought she could win the title.

But now she is a grand slam champion and a top-10 player, there will be no more hiding from the spotlight. In order to win again, she has to learn how to do so with all eyes on her and expectations high. “I’m not the underdog any more,” she says. “I have to get used to that.”

So far, Vondrousova has handled herself well. After winning a couple of matches in Canada, she reached the quarter-finals in Cincinnati, where she lost to the world No 1, Iga Swiatek, after serving for the first set. She is keeping her expectations low again.

“I feel like it’s a good thing to have the pressure that you are now top 10,” she says. “But now I’m taking it match by match because I feel like everyone is going to want to beat you and they’re going to play some great shots because they have nothing to lose now. You have to take that and just focus on every match.”