The ball hung high in the sky for an eternity, giving Barbora Krejcikova all the time in the world to think about the countless ways that things could go wrong. Yet despite making so many unforced errors on her backhand and being a point away from losing the biggest singles match of her career at 3-5 in the third set, she swiped the backhand drive volley out of the air to save match point with a clean winner.
Forty-five minutes later, after three hours and 17 minutes of nerves, doubt and tremendous fight, the unseeded Krejcikova finally recovered to defeat Maria Sakkari, the 17th seed, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 at the French Open to reach a grand slam singles final for the first time.
“I always wanted to play a match like this,” said Krejcikova. “Every time, when I was younger [and] I was playing juniors, I always wanted to play a match like this. Such a challenging match, where we both had our chances, we both have been playing so well. Only one can win.
“Even if I lost today, I would be just very proud of myself because I was just fighting. I think that’s the most important thing, just to fight. Every time – in here but also in the normal life. Fighting, that’s the most important thing.”
In the final she will face Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who once again handled an enormous opportunity with composure and maturity, defeating Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia 7-5, 6-3 to also reach a major final for the first time in her career. In her 52nd major, the 29-year-old has become the first woman to play more than 50 slam tournaments before competing in her first final.
From the very first game of the second match of the day, what unfolded at Roland Garros was a tennis psychodrama in its purest form. Both Sakkari and Krejcikova entered their first ever major semi-final with a maiden final on the line; each of them was so conscious of the moment and they wanted it so much.
But desperation can so often be a hindrance in professional tennis and they were hindered initially. The first set swung from Sakkari’s lead of 3-1, 0-30, to Krejcikova serving for the set at 5-3, to 5-5. Sakkari, while serving to stay in the set at 5-6, hit four nervous errors including a double fault to hand over the set.
To her credit, Sakkari willed herself to a third set through the sheer force of her desire. She barked at herself after points won and lost, she targeted the Czech’s faltering backhand relentlessly, and her footwork was furious even as her strokes let her down.
In the final set, Sakkari shrugged off Krejcikova’s eight-minute toilet break as well as the rising pressure as her opponent slowly returned to the match. But even as she compiled games, Sakkari never looked comfortable. She had built her lead primarily on backhand errors from Krejcikova; when they finally stopped, she did not know what to do.
From 5-3, Krejcikova saved the match point with a glorious driven cross-court backhand volley and they were quickly tied at 5-5. Yet as the third set endured, something strange happened: both players began to play some of their best tennis of the match despite being so close to defeat and with everything on the line.
After Krejcikova saved Sakkari’s match point on her serve at 3-5, Sakkari then saved three of Krejcikova’s match points on her serve at 6-7 with phenomenal back-to-the-wall attack.
In the end, it was Sakkari who blinked. She double faulted at 7-8, 30-30. On the Czech’s fourth match point, Sakkari’s forehand was called out and Krejcikova celebrated her victory. It was overruled, though, even as Krejcikova fruitlessly argued her case. Sakkari’ then stepped up and drilled a cross-court backhand to save a fourth match point. Krejcikova could have lost it all there but she had the wherewithal to return to the baseline, generate another match point and finally secure victory.
Afterwards, Krejcikova thanked her team. Then she looked to the sky and reserved some gratitude her former mentor, the late Jana Novotna. “She’s just really looking after me and I really miss her. I really want to thank her for being also while I’m here. It’s really important for me to say this out loud.”
Earlier in the day, Pavlyuchenkova was asked what her 14-year-old self, dominant on the junior circuit and dreaming of reaching grand slam finals, would tell her now. After a second, she responded: “Fourteen-year-old me would tell me, like: ‘What took you so long?’”