French Open: History beckons for late bloomers Pavlyuchenkova, Krejcikova

Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova after taming Slovenia’s Tamara Zidansek in their women’s singles semi-final at French Open on Thursday. Image Credit: AFP

Paris: Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Barbora Krejcikova, two of the most unlikely Grand Slam finalists of the modern era, meet in Saturday’s French Open title match at the conclusion of a shock-heavy tournament.

World number 32 Pavlyuchenkova has reached this stage for the first time at the 52nd attempt, 10 years after making a first Slam quarter-final in Paris.

Krejcikova, ranked one place lower, has long been labelled a doubles specialist and this is just her fifth appearance in a main draw singles at the Slams, having never previously got beyond the last 16.

However, both women have capitalised on a draw where the top seeds fell and just kept falling.

World number one and 2019 champion Ashleigh Barty hobbled out in the second round.

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Barbora Krejcikova is in line to be only the second Czech player after Hana Mandlikova to win the clay court slam. Image Credit: Reuters

Serena Williams was knocked out in the fourth round, world number two Naomi Osaka withdrew after one match while 2018 champion Simona Halep never even made it to Paris.

“The 14-year-old me would tell me ‘What took you so long?’,” said 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova who played her first Slam event in 2007.

“It’s been a long road. I had my own long special road. Everybody has different ways. I’m happy I’m in the final.”

Pavlyuchenkova is bidding to become the fourth Russian champion at Roland Garros after Anastasia Myskina (2004), Svetlana Kuznetsova (2009) and Maria Sharapova (2012 and 2014).

Always considered to possess the weapons to win a major – she has 37 career wins over top 10 players – Pavlyuchenkova was often written off as “too nice” to succeed when it mattered most.

At the French Open in 2011, she was a set and 4-1 up on defending champion Francesca Schiavone but faltered and a semi-final place slipped away.

“I’m nice to people but I’m not nice at all,” she said.

“I mean, obviously I’m respectful but when I’m on the court, I’m doing my job and I fight, and I want to kill my opponent every time I play.”

That steely attitude has served her well in Paris this year where she defeated third seed Aryna Sabalenka, former number one Victoria Azarenka as well as doubles partner Elena Rybakina, all in three sets.

Rybakina had knocked out Williams in the last-16.

Krejcikova is bidding to become just the second Czech women’s champion in Paris, 40 years after Hana Mandlikova triumphed. The 25-year-old is already a Grand Slam champion, having captured the women’s doubles with Katerina Siniakova at Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2018.

Her late blossoming as a singles specialist, however, means she has yet to play in the main draw at both the All England Club and US Open.

Indeed, she won eight doubles titles before lifting a maiden singles trophy on clay in Strasbourg on the eve of the French Open.

Krejcikova should break the top 20 with victory on Saturday having finished 2020 at 65 in the world.

In her marathon semi-final win over Maria Sakkari, in the second-longest match of the tournament, Krejcikova saved a match point and needed five of her own to seal the deal.

Sakkari was just one of four players ranked higher seen off over the last two weeks, including fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina in the third round.

Knife-edge run

It has been a knife-edge run. Ahead of her last-16 win over Sloane Stephens, the Czech was so paralysed by fear that she locked herself in the physio’s office and wept.

Should she win Saturday, Krejcikova will cast a glance to the heavens and say a quiet ‘thank-you’ to Jana Novotna, the former Wimbledon champion who died of cancer at the age of just 49 in 2017.

Novotna mentored Krejcikova, now on an 11-match win streak, in her earlier career.

“Every time before a match or after a match I just feel like she’s there, she’s looking after me.”