In July 2022, Marketa Vondrousova came to Wimbledon to cheer on her best friend Mirjam Bjorklund who was playing in the qualifying rounds. With her arm in a cast due to a second wrist surgery two months earlier, Vondrousova had travelled to London as a tourist with her sister. By July 16, she would get married to long-time partner Stepan Simek.

A year on, Vondrousova marked her first wedding anniversary by lifting her first Grand Slam title. On Saturday, the unseeded Czech beat Ons Jabeur 6-4, 6-4 in the women’s singles final to become only the third woman from her country to win the Wimbledon crown.

Tunisian Jabeur went into Saturday’s final as the favourite having notched comeback wins over defending champion Elena Rybakina in the quarter-final and second seed Aryna Sabalenka in the semi-final. Over the course of her run to the final, Jabeur had beaten four Major winners and looked set to break her Grand Slam duck.

After losing to Rybakina st SW19 last year and to world No 1 Iga Swiatek at the 2022 US Open, Saturday presented Jabeur with her best chance to win a coveted first Major. Standing in the way was Vondrousova.

The 24-year-old’s title run was nothing short of audacious. Before this year, the Czech boasted a 4-15 win-loss record on grass and had a 1-4 record at Wimbledon. She was so sure she would not make it to the second week at the Championships that she told her husband to stay back home to look after their cat.

“Crazy for sure,” said Vondrousova after her title win. “I didn’t play well before on grass. Nobody would have told you this before when we were coming here that I even have a chance to win. I was unseeded. It’s such a crazy journey. I can’t believe it still.”

Nerves of steel

Saturday wasn’t Vondrousova’s first appearance at a major final. In 2019, she reached the French Open final where Asheligh Barty dropped just four games to clinch her first Grand Slam title. A couple of years later at the Tokyo Olympics, she beat the likes of Naomi Osaka and Elina Svitolina to reach the final where she lost in three hard-fought sets to Belinda Bencic. Like Jabeur, the past also weighed heavily on Vondrousova’s shoulders.

“I was 19 at my first final and I remember that it was such a big stress,” she said during the post-match press conference. “I just wanted to do well and it was a big thing in Czech. I think she just crushed me and I was very upset after the match. I told myself that if it happens again, I have to enjoy every moment. Even if I had lost today, I would have just enjoyed the final.”

It wasn’t the best of starts to the final for Vondrousova as Jabeur broke her at the first time of asking to take a 2-0 lead in the first set. However, she broke back straight away in a close third game before Jabeur once again broke her to take a 4-2 lead. And yet, Vondrousova kept did not panic. Playing under a closed Centre Court helped her nail her returns as she went on a stunning four-game streak to close out the first set 6-4.

Over the fortnight, Jabeur had made a name for herself as the comeback queen with her wins over Rybakina and Sabalenka. The Tunisian quickly brushed off the disappointment of losing the first set to earn the first break in the second to take a 3-1 lead. And with a partisan crowd behind her, Jabeur looked like she was preparing herself for yet another comeback win.

Vondrousova, however, had other ideas. The southpaw kept on nailing her returns as errors kept creeping into Jabeur’s games. The Tunisian’s bakchand, in particular, became unpredictable.

“I didn’t serve really well,” Jabeur said after the match. “I didn’t have the feeling that I was in control and troubling her.

“Marketa just put the ball in, slices a lot. It was a completely different match from the last three that I had. So adapting to her return was difficult for me plus the stress of the final. I don’t think she made a lot of mistakes, I think she played good. She played a perfect final.”

Vondrousova got the match back on serve at 3-3. While the Czech was a picture of calmness, Jabeur was wilting under pressure. Her body language betrayed her emotions even as her game dropped.

Vondrousova got the crucial break in the ninth game, putting her one service hold away from a title. And perhaps for the first time in the final, her nerves almost got the better of her.

“At 40-0, I just couldn’t breathe,” she said.

With three championship points in hand, she committed a double fault. But at the second time of asking, she came up clutch to seal her first Major win. A win nobody, including Vondrousova, would have predicted.

“I think I just kept my nerves together and stayed calm the whole match,” she added. “The semis were more nervous than today. I think everyone was surprised at how calm I was today. That was the key to this title that I just kept believing and I kept calm even when she broke me to go 2-0 up.

“When I was coming back, I didn’t know what’s going to happen, if I can play at that level again. This seems impossible. On grass I didn’t play well before. It was the most impossible Grand Slam for me to win, so I didn’t even think of it. When we came, I was like, ‘just try to win a couple of matches’. Now this happened, it’s crazy,” she added.

In a final, that pitted two players who came agonisingly close to winning the biggest titles the sport offers, it was the steely Czech who etched her name in the sport’s history books.