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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, June 10, 2021

Barbora Krejcikova

World No. 33 Barbora Krejcikova saved a match point edging Maria Sakkari in a classic 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 triumph to reach her first Grand Slam singles final in Paris.

Photo credit: @Roland Garros

Turbulence tested Barbora Krejcikova in a swirling semifinal suspense show.

Saving a match point at 3-5 in the decider, Krejcikova broke Maria Sakkari when she served for the match at 5-4, thrust her arms in victory only to be victimized by a brutal over-rule from the chair umpire, saw four match points slip from her grip and felt legs, lungs and concentration stressed to the breaking point in a three-hour, 18-minute Roland Garros semifinal epic. 

More: Controversial Call Sparks Debate

Braving all those trials, Krejcikova looked like the calmest person inside Court Philippe Chatrier cracking the final strike.

World No. 33 Krejcikova bolted a backhand winner down the line beating back Sakkari in a classic 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 triumph to reach her first Grand Slam singles final.

"I always wanted to play a match like this," Krejcikova said. "It's such a challenging match when we both had our chances, we both been playing so well. And only one can win.

"Even if I lost today I would be just very proud of myself. Because I was just fighting and I think that's the most important thing just to fight. To fight every time in here but also in normal life. I mean fighthing, that's the most important thing."

It was the longest Roland Garros women's semifinal in Open Era history popping with dizzying drama, sheer guts and desire from both warriors, some superb shotmaking under pressure, spiking nerves climaxing in one of the craziest conclusions to a major semifinal in recent years.

It all added up to Krecjikova's 11th straight clay-court win and her first trip to a Grand Slam final in just her fifth major main-draw appearance.

The former doubles world No. 1, who is still alive in the doubles semifinals with partner Katerina Siniakova, showed a steely spine battling into Saturday's final vs. 29-year-old Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who also made history in her 7-5, 6-3 win over 85th-ranked Tamara Zidansek. Contesting her 52nd career major, Pavlyuchenkova is the first woman in Open Era history to reach a major final after 50 or more Grand Slam appearances.

Last fall, Krejcikova arrived in Paris ranked No. 114 and produced pleasure in Paris fighting through to her first major fourth-round appearance. Today, she stands with a shot to become the first woman to sweep French Open singles and doubles crowns since Mary Pierce, who was watching this match from the broadcast booth, did it back in 2000.

Spare a thought for the spirited Sakkari, who held a match point on Krejcikova's serve at 5-3, served for the final at 5-4 and fought off four match points before ultimately bowing. Sakkari poured intensity into the match and had several opportunities to take charge, but could not find her forehand at the finish line against an opponent who looked unfazed by immense pressure.

"I have to be deadly honest: I got stressed, starting thinking that I'm a point away from being in the final. I guess it's a rookie mistake," Sakkari said afterward. "Good thing is that if I give myself a chance again to be in that position, then I know that I don't have to do it again.

"Just got a little bit stressed, got a little bit more passive on my game. Yeah, didn't go for it. I just didn't play offensive. I was a little bit defensive, especially in the big points. I couldn't find a way to break her after 5-All. Yeah, I think it's human emotions, but I think I'll learn from it."

Winless in seven prior major meetings with Top 10 opponents, Sakkari had knocked off two Top 10 opponents—defending champion Iga Swiatek and 2020 finalist Sofia Kenin—en route to making history as the first female Greek Grand Slam semifinalist.

The 17th-seeded Sakkari, who spent part of pandemic-interrupted 2020 season training with Greek track athletes, burst out of the blocks quickly in a 3-1 lead.

In her comeback quarterfinal conquest of Coco Gauff, Krejcikova saved five set points in the opening set despite battling the sun and some nerves on her toss which she caught several times in that win. Squinting into the sun in the opening set today, Krejcikova was serving at less than 50 percent and found herself in a precarious position again.

Tennis Express

Sakkari rapped a return winner down the line for double break point in the fifth game and was on the verge of a 4-1 lead.  But she smothered a pair of forehands into net. That sloppy sequence gave Krejcikova a life line and she jumped on it catching the edge of the sideline with her first ace and stabilizing her second serve a bit holding for 2-3.

Establishing her two-hander down the line, Krejcikova showed sharp court sense hitting her backhand crosscourt behind Sakkari to earn a second break point. Extending the point with a sliding slice, Krejcikova broke back to level after six games.

An energized Krejcikova rolled through eight of the next 10 points. Reading a Sakkari drop shot, the Czech slid into a brilliant lob reply—showing deft touch on the dead sprint—that soared over Sakkari's out-stretched racquet to seal her fourth straight game for 5-3.

Thumping her forehand with more vigor, Sakkari streaked through eight points in a row to even the set after 10 games.

Elevating again, Krejcikova cracked her second ace that helped her hold for 6-5.

Tossing in some high looping shots to deny Sakkari pace and push the Greek behind the baseline, a clever Krejcikova rattled out a few forehand errors to earn double-set point. Sakkari's shot caught the top of the tape and scattered wide as Krejcikova, who had been on the brink of a 1-4 deficit, won six of the last eight games to snatch the 56-minute opener. It was similar to her first-set comeback vs. Gauff in that Krejcikova began connecting on her first serve more frequently and mixed the speeds and spins of her shots denying Sakkari rhythm.

Sakkari was reinvigorated by the deficit as she burst out to a 3-0 second-set lead. A sliding athletic forehand dig from Sakkari stretched a point as she earned a gritty hold for 4-0.

In the seventh game, Sakkari had double break point, which would have given her a 5-2 lead. Krejcikova  stood up to the stress varying the heights and spins of her drives in managing a tough hold for 3-4.

On her first set point, Sakkari set up her forehand strike but netted it down the line. Launching herself up into her serve, Sakkari zapped her first ace for a second set point only to whack a wild forehand well beyond the baseline.

The third set point proved to be the charm as Sakkari slid a drop shot, read the reply and banged a backhand pass Krejcikova could not control. Forcing a final set, Sakkari leaped in the air then waved her arms exhorting fans to make some noise.

Strasbourg champion Krejcikova left the court for several minutes for a clothing change and returned refreshed, holding at love to open the final set.  Sakkari kept up the pressure playing her twisting topspin forehand to her opponent's backhand, rallying from 30-love down in breaking for 2-1. Sakkari saved a break point in the ensuing game to confirm the break for 3-1.

Calm composure she's developed from her doubles success has been evident throughout Krejcikova's inspired singles run through this clay season.

Tugging on her vanilla visor, Krejcikova did not blink staring down match point at 3-5. The Czech hit behind speedy Sakkari, moved into the court and hammered a backhand drive volley denying match point in the ninth game forcing the Greek to serve it out.

Serving for the final at 5-4, Sakkari made three forehands errors to face break point. Sakkari saved it with a backhand crosscourt, but dumped a drop shot into net for a second break point. Lifting the high loopy topspin, Krejcikova elicited a netted backhand to knot it up 5-all.

"Of course I'm proud of my run here. But it hurts," Sakkari said. "Today's loss hurts a lot because I was so close. I was just one point away. But what can you do? There are lots of positives and some negatives, as well.

"I just have to embrace it and just move forward and see how am I going to do it the next time."

Another bold backhand strike down the line capped Krejcikova's third straight game for a 6-5 lead.

Reading the moment, Krejcikova hit a dipping pass and Sakkari netted a volley to face two match points in the 14th game. The Czech committed an error on the first and Sakkari smacked a backhand inside the sideline to save the second.

A backhand return crashed into the top of the tape and dribbled over—that lucky bounce gave the Czech a third match point. But showing Spartan strength, Sakkari slammed an ace down the T to save it in emphatic fashion. When Sakkari held for 7-7, fans roared in approval and Sakkari waved her arms asking for more.

Three hours, 12 minutes into this heart-racing drama, Sakkari spit up her first double fault of the set to face a fourth match point.

When a Sakkari shot landed long and was called out by the linesperson, Krejcikova held her arms in victory. Though Hawk-Eye replay showed the shot was indeed long, chair umpire Emmanuel Joseph came out, pointed to a mark on the chewed-up red dirt that was littered with ball marks and called the shot good prompting a replay. 

Credit Krejcikova for not losing her mind over that over-rule and refocusing so quickly.

"At that moment I was just like, Well, it's out, but what can you do?" Krejcikova said. "The chair umpire, he has seen it as in. What can I do? I cannot do anything about it. I cannot call anyone, change his decision.

"I was like, Okay, well... It's fine. Doesn't matter. Just let's go."

The over-rule highlights the insanity of Roland Garros having Hawk-Eye on site for TV networks to use yet not acutally using modern line-calling technology (if Hawk-Eye is not deemed accurate enough what about FoxTenn, which uses high speed cameras?) to ensure the correct calls are made. It's maddening that TV viewers at home can see technology at home while officials do not use it, but Krejcikova, knowing the stakes were so high, did took the right tact moving on mentally from the call. Sakkari took that new life and banged a backhand to save the fourth match point. 

That was temporary reprieve.

The Sakkari forehand that had powered her to a 9-3 clay-court record, including snapping defending-champion Swiatek's 11-match Roland Garros winning streak, failed her at the finish today. Sakkari narrowly missed a forehand to face a fifth match point.

The ensuing corner-to-corner rally was one of the best of the set as Krejcikova out-maneuvered Sakkari to draw the mid-court ball then banged her backhand down the line to close an epic three hour, 18-minute triumph.

It's been a wondrous run for Krejcikova, who has far surpassed her childhood tennis dreams with a streak that she calls beyond belief.

"When I was a kid, I actually grew up in a little city where we didn't have like pro coaches or something. I was never thinking that I'm actually going to play pro," Krejcikova said. "I never imagined that I'm going to be actually a Grand Slam finalist. I don't know. I don't know. It sounds, I mean, incredible. But it just sounds that I can't really believe it. I cannot believe it. Yeah, I cannot believe it it's actually happening. I cannot believe it."

Following her rousing comeback win over Gauff in the quarterfinals, Krejcikova was asked how her mentor, the late, great Hall of Fame Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna, would react to this remarkable rollercoaster run.

"I think she would just tell me that she's very proud. That's what I think she would do," Krejcikova said. "She would just tell me just enjoy, keep going. It doesn't matter if you win or lose, you just have to do your best every single time you step on court, just focus on tennis, just play.

"Just play, just enjoy, just have fun, appreciate that you can be here and you can do what you love. That's what I think she would tell me. She would be just extremely happy. She would just be jumping and screaming. That's how I remember. That's actually what she was doing when I played ITFs and I won ITFs. I guess maybe it would be even bigger right now."

In a pulsating semifinal, Krejcikova and Sakkari had tennis fans all over the world jumping and screaming at a classic climax to a fierce semifinal fight.


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