Thursday, June 10, 2021

A Russian and a Czech create a dazzling pre-final story in Paris

There couldn't have been a greater contrast of on-court personalities: 17th seed Maria Sakkari--playing in her first major semifinal--shouted, fist-pumped, smiled, and scowled. On the other side of the net, the unseeded Barbora Krejcikova--also playing in her first major (singles) semifinal--delivered Evert-like stoicism throughout the entire 198-minute tense, momentum-swinging, physically grueling match. 

To add to the drama, Sakkari and Krejcikova had never before played each other. The Greek player entered the contest after having played a near-perfect quarterfinal match against injured defending champion Iga Swiatek. Her Czech opponent entered as a doubles semifinalist, as well; she and partner Katerina Siniakova are also in the doubles semifinals. 

There was little between the opponents. They both hit more unforced errors than winners, they had similar service stats, they broke around the same number of times (though Sakkari saved more break points), neither hit many aces (five for Krejcikova and two for Sakkari). So with neither player holding control for very long, the match went through a number of twists and turns before it finally ended.

A big twist occurred at 5-3 in the third set, when Krejcikova used her impressive backhand to save a match point. It would be the Greek's last match point, though Krejcikova would have to deal with five of her own. 

A bigger twist occurred at 7-8, 30-40 in the third set, when Sakkari hit a forehand that was called long, and Krejcikova began celebrating her victory. But Sakkari asked for the mark to be checked, and the chair umpire called the shot good. Unlike the other majors, the French Open does not use Hawkeye to check lines. Systems such as Foxtenn were used for the first time this year at other clay tournaments, but not at Roland Garros, and Hawkeye has yet to be declared accurate for clay surfaces.

So play continued, the Czech player remained calm, and on her fifth match point, she prevailed, defeating Sakkari 7-5, 4-6, 9-7.

Tennis Channel Commentator Lindsay Davenport reported that the margin wasn't in question--that the ball was way out on Hawkeye, so it's reasonable to conclude that Krejcikova actually won the match twice.

Earlier, 31st seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova defeated the unseeded Tamara Zidansek 7-5, 6-3. The young Slovenian players didn't make it easy for Pavlyuchenkova; her shot-making was, at times, stunning. But the Russian held fast and weathered the bad patches. 

There are people who are under the deluded impression that the women's draw at this French Open is boring, illegitimate, embarrassing, and any number of other unpleasant things (there are also many people who are under the deluded impression that the French Open isn't a fantastic major). The reality is that we have seen some thrilling and wonderful tennis this week.

The other reality is that seldom do we have such a dramatic backstory for a major final as we do this week. Let's start with Pavlyuchenkova, a former junior world number 1 and major junior champion. Much was expected of the Russian prodigy when she entered the WTA tour, but--as gifted as she is--Pavlyuchenkova had--until now--never been able to get past the quarterfinals of a major. She has also played in more majors--52--without reaching a final, than any other woman.

The 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova said a few days ago that she has matured--that, in the past, she wanted to just hit the ball without thinking too much about strategy. This maturity has obviously paid off in a big way.

In contrast, Barbora Krejcikova has played in only five major singles draws. A former world number 1 in doubles, the Czech player was still playing singles qualifying matches as recently as last year. Only she was shut out of several of them because she was playing doubles in the second week of the tournaments that were played just prior to the ones in which she hoped to qualify. She seriously considered halting her singles career.

Everything changed for her at the 2020 French Open, when Krejcikova made it to the round of 16 in singles. She won her first WTA singles title last month in Strasbourg, and was a finalist in the 2021 Dubai tournament, a WTA 1000 event. Now, she is one win away from being the first Czech player since Hana Mandlikova (1981) to win at Roland Garros. 

It may not show, but Krejcikova has had her share of problems with nerves at Roland Garros, even going so far as to tell her team that she didn't know how she could possibly hang in with Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. As it turned out, she delivered Stephens a bagel, and allowed her only two games.

Krejcikova is the eighth unseeded player to reach the French Open final. Her path may be a little rougher than Pavlyuchenkova's because Krejcikova and her long-time partner, Katerina Siniakova (they won the French Open in 2018), have to play their semifinal tomorrow. (The last woman to win the tournament in both singles and doubles was Mary Pierce, in 2000.)

The revelatory nature of the Czech player's story is made only more dramatic by the fact that Jana Novotna was her coach and mentor.

Here are the players' paths to the final:

round 1--def. Kristyna Pliskova
round 2--def. Ekaterina Alexandrova (32)
round 3--def. Elina Svitolina (5)
round of 16--def. Sloane Stephens
quarterfinals--def. Coco Gauff (24)
semifinals--def. Maria Sakkari (17)

round 1--def. Christina McHale
round 2--def. Ajla Tomljanovic
round 3--def. Aryna Sabalenka (3)
round of 16--def. Victoria Azarenka (15)
quarterfinals--def. Elena Rybakina (21)
semifinals--def. Tamara Zidansek

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