Saturday, June 12, 2021

Barbora, Jana and Suzanne--a triumvirate of inspiration

It would have been an amazing story, no matter which way it went: Veteran Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia, former junior world number 1, finally--after fourteen years--making it past a quarterfinal in a major, and then reaching a final after the longest number of tries--52--in the Open Era. And Barbora Krejcikova, a former world number 1 in doubles, and known as a doubles specialist, unseeded and playing in only her fifth major main draw. 

One was a story of determination overcoming disappointment; the other, a story of not giving up a dream to become a great singles competitor, and of being mentored and inspired by a tennis great who left us too soon.

Today, at Roland Garros, on Court-Phillippe Chatrier, it was the second story that became part of tennis history, as unseeded Krejcikova defeated Pavlyuchenova to win the 2021 French Open. 

Krejcikova got off to a shaky start, getting broken right away, but--as she has done during the entire two weeks--the Czech player did whatever it is she does to pull herself together, and then went about running over her opponent in the opening set, and winning it 6-1. But, as is usually the case in a big match, the loser of that set came back strong, and won the second set 6-2. We knew we were in for a tense final set.

In that set, Krejcikova--whose second serve had been better than her opponent's throughout the match--had significantly more success with her second serve. She was broken once; she broke Pavlyuchenkova twice. It had the look of a set that could go either way, but then--when it counted--Krejcikova, continuing to make big trouble with both her estimable forehand and her very reliable backhand--prevailed. 

But not until she missed out on breaking Pavlyuchenkova to win the match on her opponent's serve. She then had to serve for the match, and--once again--Krejcikova became shaky (and who could blame her?) and double-faulted on her third match point. But on her fourth, she claimed her 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory. Though it was a close (in an odd kind of way) match, it was Krejcikova who played the bigger game, hitting 34 winners to 31 unforced errors; her opponent hit 23 winners to 16 unforced errors.

It should also be noted that Pavlyuchenkova had to deal with injuries in both her left knee and her left thigh, which certainly impeded her service game (she had been serving at a high level throughout the tournament). It's always sad to see a final (or any match, but especially a final) played in which one of the opponents is injured, and this turn of events was most unfortunate.

If I'd had to guess which player might suffer an injury in the final, I would have picked Krejcikova. She spent only about an hour more on court than Pavlyuchenkova in singles play, but she was constantly active (and still is) in doubles play. Also, Krejcikova's matches were very demanding, both mentally and physically (Pavlyuchenkova, however, did have a very demanding quarterfinal match).

Krejcikova becomes the twelfth woman in the Open Era to win a major after saving a match point, and the third such woman to win the French Open. She is the first Czech player in forty years to win at Roland Garros; Hana Mandlikova won the title in 1981.

The new champion has long been known as an elite doubles player, and is, in fact, a former world number 1. She and her partner, Katerina Siniakova, won both the French Open and Wimbledon in 2018, and the pair, seeded second, is in contention to win the 2021 French Open title. Their opponents will be the veteran doubles star Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her partner, 2020 French Open singles champion, Iga Swiatek (who has also sustained a leg injury).

Only nine months ago, Krejcikova was trying to crack the top 100. For five years, she failed to get out of qualifying at majors. But last fall, the Czech player broke through in a big way, reaching the round of 16 at Roland Garros. She lost that round to Nadia Podoroska, who would go as far as the semifinals. After that run in Paris, everything changed. Krejcikova won her first title in Strasbourg two weeks ago, and reached the final in Dubai, a WTA 1000 event. 

In addition to her two major women's doubles titles, Krejcikova also holds three Australian Open mixed doubles titles. At the trophy ceremony, she said "Now I was just telling myself, it would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories. Now it's happening. I cannot believe it. Wow."

"All of this... it's a big achievement that nobody really expected, not even me," the new champion acknowledged.

The 2021 French Open champion is generous with her gratitude for many who have helped her and stood by her, but her most heartfelt gratitude is reserved for the late Jana Novotna, who coached Krejcikova when she was a teenager. Their relationship began when Novotna moved back to Brno, where Krejcikova's family lives. Krejcikova's mother drove her to the Wimbledon champion's house, unannounced--and, after a session of "show me what you got" on Novotna's court--the revered champion decided to coach her.

"Pretty much her last words were 'Just enjoy, and just try to win a Grand Slam,'" Krejcikova told the crowd at the awards ceremony. "All of this that just happened these two weeks, is pretty much because she's looking after me from up there. It was amazing that I had a chance to meet her and that she was such an inspiration for me. I just really miss her and I hope she's happy right now."

And that is how you might end an amazing sports story. Only it isn't over: Tomorrow, Krejcikova will hold one more trophy, in addition to the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen already in her possession. If that turns out to be the champions' trophy, she will be the first woman to pull off the singles/doubles sweep at Roland Garros since Mary Pierce did it in 2000. 

One way or the other, it's a gripping and inspiring story, with a compelling and inspiring protagonist.

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