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By Richard Pagliaro | Thursday, June 8, 2023


Karolina Muchova rallied from 2-5 down in the decider shocking No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5 to reach her maiden major final in Paris.

Photo credit: Roland Garros Facebook

The walls were closing in on Karolina Muchova.

Staring down a match point at 2-5 and losing her legs against world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, the cramping Czech met the moment with calm defiance.

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Firing a forehand winner to erase match point, Muchova surged through 20 of the last 24 points and five straight games, shocking the second-seeded Sabalenka 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5 to battle into her maiden major final at Roland Garros.

"It's been a roller coaster of, yeah, 2-5 in the third, but I still kind of knew it's just one break and I was waiting for my chances. It happened," Muchova said. "It happened. I managed to break Aryna and then hold my serve. Then, you never know what's going to happen. I just try to play point by point.

"Yeah, super glad that I turn it around and then managed to win the match."

Bringing her best against the best, Muchova improved to 5-0 lifetime against Top 3-ranked players advancing to Saturday's final against either world No. 1 Iga Swiatek.

Reigning champion Swiatek saved a set point in the tiebreaker fending off 14th-seeded Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-2, 7-6(7) for her 13th straight French Open win.

"I will for sure need to fight," Muchova said of her first major final. "I'll need to play my best.

"Yeah, just to bring the best out of me and play a perfect match to be able to win a Grand Slam."

Exerting her all-court acumen brilliantly, Muchova won 21 of 28 trips to net and converted all five break points she earned.

A gritty Muchova joins Martina Navratilova, Lucie Safarova, Marketa Vondrousova and Barbora Krejcikova as the fifth Czech woman to reach the French Open final.

World No. 43 Muchova snapped Sabalenka's 12-match major winning streak denying the second-seeded Belarusian her shot at seizing the No. 1 ranking.

"Tough match. Yeah, she played unbelievable tennis," Sabalenka said. "Still, I had a lot of opportunities, and I didn't use it.

"Yeah, of course I'm very disappointed with this tough loss, but that's okay."

This stunning roll reversal climax was a story of triumph and disaster.

Triumph, for the 26-year-old Muchova who hobbled out of the 2022 Roland Garros in a boot unsure of her competitive future.

Disaster for a devastated Sabalenka, who was one point from reaching her first French Open final with a shot to surpass Iga Swiatek for world No. 1 and move halfway to a calendar Grand Slam.

It was a match of missed opportunity for Sabalenka, who converted only 4 of 13 break-point chances and nearly doubled Muchova's unforced error count (53 to 27) in a clash of high quality until Sabalenka's free fall.

This was a wild, wondrous semifinal that saw Sabalenka throw Muchova a lifeline down the stretch.

Serving at 5-all, 40-15, Sabalenka committed consecutive double faults then watched Muchova zap a forehand winner to break for 6-5.

"She gave me the chance and I took the chance," Muchova said. "I got on the wave, on the better wave, I would say.

"I could see that she was struggling a little bit and doing fast mistakes. I was just trying to keep her there."

Tennis Express

An all-court player skilled in the art of the approach and closing net, Muchova adopted a bit of an Ash Barty attack at the outset. Muchova slid low slice backhands at awkward angles in an effort to mute Sabalenka's volatile power strikes.

"She was a little bit out of radar, but she always play great tennis, coming to the net, playing really aggressive," Sabalenka said of Muchova. "Like if she see these short balls, she's coming to the net, so it's kind of a little bit tricky to build point against her.

"Yeah, she just played great tennis."

The 5'11" Belarusian was bending for those low slices and answering with deep drives, gaining a couple of break points in the  fourth game. Muchova skimmed an ace down the middle to save the first break point and made a running backhand dig pass to erase the second break point. Muchova tamed the first break point turbulence, navigating a three-deuce hold to level after four games.

Thirty-two minutes into the match, Sabalenka worked through a tense hold for 4-3 when Muchova botched a backhand volley into net. 

Facing love-30, Muchova timed her two-hander down the line, lashed a forehand winner to level, then snapped a fine forehand winner down the line off a deep return to go up 40-30.  Fueled by that flurry of winners, Muchova evened after eight games.  

Using the wind as her ally, Muchova played her returns with depth and angle, streaming forward to block a fine forehand volley and earn double break point in the ninth game.

Angling the world No. 2 wide with her return, Muchova created open space down the line where she flicked a forehand winner capping a creative two-game surge with the first break for 5-4.

Serving for the set, Muchova showed her backhand variety and all-court acumen, chipping a one-handed backhand volley winner followed by her two-hander down the line for 30-15. Digging in, Sabalenka saved a set point with a forehand winner.

Curling a crosscourt forehand, her 11th winner of the set, brought Sabalenka a break point. When Muchova sailed a backhand, Sabalenka broke back for 5-5.

Raising her level, Sabalenka slid into a one-handed backhand pass down the line holding for 6-5. 

A topsy-turvy tiebreaker saw Muchova move out to a 3-0 lead before Sabalenka, behind successive stinging second serves, won five of the next six points to edge ahead 5-4.

Riding all the momentum, Sabalenka sabotaged her comeback, spraying a pair of forehands to give the Czech a second set point.

A courageous Muchova made the most of it, slashing a brilliant backhand strike down the line sealing a quality set in 68 minutes.

Seeing Sabalenka's forehand stray, Muchova wisely kept going back to that wing. Sabalenka spit up a series of errors essentially breaking herself as Muchova moved ahead with the break anda  2-0 second-set lead.

Short-term memory loss is a prerequisite for Grand Slam success. Shrugging off those forehand lapses, Sabalenka came back firing forehands including a massive forehand strike that rattled the back wall with an ominous thud breaking back in the third game.

The world No. 43 continued capping points with her fine finishing skills at net. Knifing a backhand volley, Muchova saved break point in the seventh game. Undeterred, Sabalenka opened the court with a sharp-angled backhand return then ripped a forehand winner breaking for 4-3. 

Sabalenka pushed a short forehand into net and sprayed a crosscourt forehand giving the break back in the eighth game.

Credit the world No. 2 for continuing to fire away under pressure. Sabalenka slammed successive aces to level after 10 games.

A superb second set escalated into another tiebreaker.

Amping up the pace of her screaming strikes and accompanying grunt, Sabalenka burst out to a 5-3 lead in the tiebreaker. Shaking off a double fault on her first set point, Sabalenka slammed a bounce smash to close the second set and force the decider with a trip to the final on the line.

Shotmaking flowed from both sides of net: Muchova clubbed a forehand winner down the line saving a break point, but Sabalenka spun a forehand pass behind the Czech for a fourth break point in the second game. Muchova reached back and rifled a serve down the middle, eventually holding for 2-2.

Playing catch-up for most of the match, Sabalenka surged ahead cracking consecutive winners and drawing a forehand to score her fourth break for 4-2 after two hours, 45 minutes of physical play.

In a tremendous tug of war game that followed, Sabalenka spun a sharp backhand angle to end a pulsating running rally that featured a couple of net-cords. That shot gave her game point and Sabalenka swatted her fifth ace for a 5-2 lead.

Two hours, 54 minutes into the match, a drained Muchova was down love-30 and appeared to be cramping. Still, the strong-willed Muchova mashed a diagonal forehand to save match point.

"Facing a match point, I was on a serve and I was focusing honestly on another point and try to put great serve, and that worked," Muchova said. "So I didn't really think of it much like to put any pressure like that's a match point, just another point, put a huge focus.

"Yeah, I just tried to focus on my serve. I think I served well, and it kind of helped me to win this point. Then throughout all the match I think I could, here and there, I could really rely on my serve, and it helped me to get out of some crucial moments in the match."

That stand sparked a hold for 3-5.

Serving for the final, Sabalenka could have tried to play deep crosscourt and test the Czech's seemingly depleted legs. Instead, Sabalenka invited Muchova back in the match, committing three straight backhand errors to gift-wrap the break. Muchova won 11 of the last 12 points transforming that 3-5 deficit into 5-5 deadlock.

A spiraling Sabalenka was struggling to land shots between the lines, while Muchova was stretching the court.

This unpredictable plot line took another twist when Sabalenka squandered a 40-15 lead, clanked consecutive double faults then watched Muchova wallop a deep return then whip a forehand winner to break for 6-5.

A slick backhand drop shot brought Muchova to triple match point. Muchova closed a three hour, 13-minute clash when Sabalenka sprayed one final forehand. 

Spinning around the court in a waving celebration to the cheering crowd, Muchova eventually plopped down in her court-side seat, pressed her towel to her face and shed tears of joy. 


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