PARIS – The French Open 2021 will be remembered for its endless surprises. The stars have withdrawn. The best players lost early.
The trend continued on Thursday as two long shots emerged in the women’s championship game. Elite women’s tennis has been without a clear and consistent winner for some time now, but a final between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia and Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic was a scenario no one could have predicted.
31st seed Pavlyuchenkova beat non-seeded Slovenian Tamara Zidansek, 7-5, 6-3, in the semifinals. Also unranked, Krejcikova upset No.17 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7, in a match with wild swing swings and match points from both sides of the net, even one that involved a reverse line call.
Pavlyuchenkova, 29, is a veteran who turned pro in 2005. Krejcikova. Yet the effort was sufficient for each of them, if only barely.
“I’ve always wanted to play a game like this,” Krejcikova said in tears at the end of her 3-hour and 18-minute match. “Even if I lost today, I would be very proud of myself, just fighting. Here and also in life, fighting is the most important thing.
There have only been two multiple Women’s Grand Slam winners in the past four years, the opposite of what happened in an absurdly heavyweight men’s game, which has been dominated for so long by three of the greats. all time.
Women’s tennis is more like golf. At the start of a Grand Slam event, dozens of women seemingly have a chance to play deep into the tournament.
“There is so much depth,” said Tom Hill, Sakkari’s coach, ahead of the semi-final. “Now it’s round one, round two, you’re playing against the best players who can play.”
Of the two finalists, Krejcikova is the biggest surprise. His game is filled with low speed forehands and sharp backhands. His returns of serves tend to be looping backhands. She typically displays limited power and an approach that seems completely out of step with the shattering style so many women bring to court today.
In Sakkari, Krejcikova faced off against a gym rat who has been working with a fitness trainer since the age of 14 and is preparing for tennis like a world-class sprinter. Sakkari, 25, enjoys being in the weight room almost as much as she enjoys being on the tennis court. Heard that old saw about his muscles having muscles? It’s Sakkari.
Musculature, however, does not win tennis tournaments. Skillful shooting and surprise can often defeat power.
Sakkari struggled with prosperity all afternoon, spitting out an early lead in the first set, then barely surviving the second after leading by 4-0. But as Sakkari took advantage and gathered the crowd behind her, Krejcikova headed for a restroom break that lasted several minutes longer than the match’s usual pit stop. Sakkari took the pitch alone and complained to the ref to shake things up or maybe issue a warning.
When play resumed, Sakkari once again took the lead with a break on serve, and had match point with Krejcikova serving at 3-5. Krejcikova saved it with a backhand volley, then broke Sakkari’s serve in the next game, forcing her to make a series of mistakes on long rallies filled with deep lob-shaped backhands from Krejcikova.
After nearly three hours, Krejcikova had found the winning formula. It took six more games – as Sakkari saved four match points but couldn’t stop hitting, making 27 errors in the final set – for the result to become official.
On the pitch after the match, Krejcikova thanked Jana Novotna, a Czech compatriot who struggled for years to win a Grand Slam championship until she finally won the Wimbledon title in 1998. When Krejcikova was a teenager, she and her parents asked Novotna to help her break up into tennis. Novotna gave it. She died of cancer in 2017 at the age of 49.
“She’s watching over me,” Krejcikova said.
In the other semi-final, Pavlyuchenkova ended years of frustration. She had failed in six Grand Slam quarter-finals before winning Thursday in Paris.
Pavlyuchenkova has provided some clues in recent months that a race like this is in sight. She reached the semi-final in Madrid last month, but didn’t have much else to brag about. It lasted barely an hour at the Australian Open, losing badly to eventual champion Naomi Osaka in the first round.
But in her first Grand Slam semi-final, Pavlyuchenkova had the chance to face a player ranked 86th in the world.
Pavlyuchenkova was barely in control: she lost her serve twice in the first set and twice more in the second. But she was much better than Zidansek, a 23-year-old whose inexperience and nerves showed she lost her serve six times and committed 33 unforced errors against 22 for Pavlyuchenkova. Zidansek double faults in the middle of the net on match point and sent a shot that she could easily have knocked back a foot wide on match point.
Zidansek had come back from a set three times during the tournament and won two third sets in the equivalent of a tennis overtime (9-7 and 8-6) but couldn’t muster the same resilience against Pavlyuchenkova.
Pavlyuchenkova was asked on Thursday what her young self might say now that she has finally reached the ultimate game.
“What took you so long?” she said.
“It has been a long road,” she continued. “I had my own special long road. Everyone has different manners.