In Paris, It’s the Wide Open World of Women’s Tennis

PARIS — The 2021 French Open will be remembered for its endless surprises. Stars withdrew. Top players lost early.

The trend continued Thursday as two long shots surged into the women’s championship match. Elite women’s tennis has been without clear and consistent winners for a while now, but a final between Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia and Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic was a scenario no one would have predicted.

Pavlyuchenkova, seeded 31st, defeated the unseeded Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, 7-5, 6-3, in the semifinals. Krejcikova, also unseeded, upset the No. 17 seed, Maria Sakkari of Greece, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7, in a match with wild momentum swings and match points on both sides of the net, even one that involved an overturned line call.

Pavlyuchenkova, 29, is a veteran, having turned professional in 2005. Krejcikova, 25, is more of a late bloomer, having arrived in 2014. But neither had reached a Grand Slam semifinal before, and it showed as they triumphed despite multiple lost service games in nearly every set and more errors than most players could survive. Yet the effort was enough for each of them, if only barely.

“I always wanted to play a match like this,” Krejcikova said through tears when her 3-hour, 18-minute match was finished. “Even if I lost today, I would be very proud of myself, just fighting. In here and also in life, fighting is the most important thing.”

There have been just two multiple Grand Slam women’s singles winners in the past four years, the opposite of what has happened in an absurdly top-heavy men’s game, which has been dominated for so long by three of the all-time greats.

Women’s tennis more closely resembles golf. At the beginning of a Grand Slam event, dozens of women seemingly have a shot to play deep into the tournament.

“There is so much depth,” Tom Hill, Sakkari’s coach, said ahead of the semifinal. “Now it’s first round, second round, you’re playing against top players that can play.”

Of the two finalists, Krejcikova is the bigger surprise. Her game is filled with off-speed forehands and sliced backhands. Her service returns tend to be looping backhands. She usually displays limited power and an approach that seems completely out of step with the smash-mouth style that so many women bring to the court today.

In Sakkari, Krejcikova faced a gym rat who has worked with a fitness trainer since she was 14 and who prepares for tennis like a world-class sprinter. Sakkari, 25, loves being in the weight room nearly as much as she enjoys being on the tennis court. Heard that old saw about her muscles having muscles? That is Sakkari.

Musculature, though, does not win tennis tournaments. Deft shotmaking and surprise can often overcome power.

Sakkari struggled with prosperity all afternoon, coughing up an early lead in the first set, then barely surviving the second one after leading by 4-0. But as Sakkari was drawing even and rallying the crowd behind her, Krejcikova headed for a bathroom break that lasted several minutes longer than the usual in-match pit stop. Sakkari took the court alone and complained to the umpire to get things moving or perhaps issue a warning.

When play resumed, Sakkari once more took an early lead with a service break, and had match point with Krejcikova serving at 3-5. Krejcikova saved it with a swinging backhand volley, then broke Sakkari’s serve in the next game, forcing her to make a series of errors on long rallies packed with Krejcikova’s deep, lob-like backhands.

After nearly three hours, Krejcikova had figured out the winning formula. It took six more games — as Sakkari saved four match points but could not stop over-hitting, making 27 errors in the final set — for the result to become official.

On the court after the match, Krejcikova thanked Jana Novotna, a Czech compatriot who struggled for years to win a Grand Slam championship until she finally claimed the Wimbledon title in 1998. When Krejcikova was a teenager, she and her parents asked Novotna for help breaking into tennis. Novotna gave it. She died of cancer in 2017 at 49.

“She is watching over me,” Krejcikova said.

In the other semifinal, Pavlyuchenkova ended years of frustration. She had come up short in six Grand Slam quarterfinals before prevailing on Thursday in Paris.

Pavlyuchenkova provided few hints in recent months that a run of this sort was in the offing. She made the semifinal in Madrid last month but had little else to brag about. She lasted barely an hour at the Australian Open, losing badly to Naomi Osaka, the eventual champion, in the first round.

But in her first Grand Slam semifinal, Pavlyuchenkova had the good fortune to face a player ranked 86th in the world.

Pavlyuchenkova was hardly in control: She lost her serve twice in the first set, and twice more in the second. But she was far better than Zidansek, a 23-year-old whose inexperience and nerves showed as she lost her serve six times and committed 33 unforced errors compared with 22 for Pavlyuchenkova. Zidansek double-faulted into the middle of the net on set point, and sent a shot she easily could have put away a foot wide on match point.

Zidansek had come back from a set down three times during the tournament, and twice won third sets in the equivalent of tennis overtime (9-7 and 8-6) but could not muster the same resilience against Pavlyuchenkova.

Pavlyuchenkova was asked Thursday what her younger self might say now that she had finally reached the ultimate match.

“What took you so long?” she said.

“It’s been a long road,” she continued. “I had my own long special road. Everybody has different ways.”

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