Even by the usually high levels of unpredictability associated with the women’s singles draw at Majors these days, the 2021 French Open has been rather extraordinary. For only the second time in the Open era, and the first at Roland Garros, there are four first-time Grand Slam semifinalists in the women’s singles draw.
Barbora Krejcikova, Maria Sakkari, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, and Tamara Zidansek have all reached the last-four stage for the first time in their careers. This is uncharted territory. In fact, the highest remaining seed is Sakkari at 17.
This will be the fifth time in Roland Garros history, a player seeded outside the top 10 will lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
Ahead of the women’s singles semi-finals that start on Thursday, here’s a look at who are the French Open’s fine four this year:
The 25-year-old from Greece arguably caused the biggest upset of the women’s section when she beat defending champion and last-standing Top-10 seed Iga Swiatek in the quarter-finals. She is now the highest-ranked player left of the final four at world No 18, her career-best.
An aggressive player with power on serve and groundstrokes, Sakkari’s rise has been steady if not sudden or spectacular.
She made her debut at the Slams in 2015 and was ranked at 188 at the end of that year, she has been on an upward curve ever since, breaking the top 100 in 2016, top 50 in 2018 before finishing 2020 at 22 in the world.
But it wasn’t until now, her 21st Major, in Paris that she made her first quarter-final, knocking out fourth seed and 2020 runner-up Sofia Kenin before ending eighth-seeded Swiatek’s title defence. This was her first win over a top 10 player at a Slam.
She has had a mixed 2021 season so far, getting knocked out in the first round of the Australian Open, ending Naomi Osaka’s unbeaten streak at 23 and making her first WTA 1000 semifinal at Miami Open before three early losses on clay. She then retreated to a Greek Island of Spetses to recharge and the result is there for all to see – a Major breakthrough.
The 25-year-old from Athens is following in the footsteps of her mother Angeliki who was a professional player on the WTA Tour, reaching the third round at the French Open in 1985 and 1987. It took American legend Chris Evert to stop her mother, who played under her maiden name of Kanellopoulou, the first time in Paris. In 1986, Angeliki reached a career high of 48 in the world but retired at the age of 25 to start a family.
Her mother didn’t want her to take up pro tennis initially but eventually she moved to Barcelona at age 18 to train and play. Sakkari says she is inspired by and in turn inspires compatriot Stefanos Tsitsipas, who has also reached the semis – a first for Greece.
Long hailed as a doubles specialist, the 25-year-old from Czech Republic is making a mark in singles and how.
The former doubles world No 1 reached her first-ever singles Grand Slam semi-final beating fifth seed Elina Svitolina, 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens and rising star Coco Gauff. This in just her fifth Major main draw.
She is on a 10-match winning streak on clay having won her first career singles title at Strasbourg right before Roland Garros. She also won her first career Grand Slam trophy - in women’s doubles - in Paris and is in the doubles semi-final again this year.
She is no stranger to the big stage and has won five Grand Slam titles in women’s doubles and mixed doubles (French Open and Wimbledon 2018 with Katerina Siniakova and three straight mixed doubles at Australian Open) but had never won a singles tournament before last month.
Incidentally, it is at Roland Garros that her late singles rise really took off last year. She reached the fourth round in 2020 which enabled her to break into the top 100 of WTA rankings and has been on the rise since then, peaking at her current world No 33 position.
She has a 24-9 record in 2021, including a run to her first WTA 1000 final in Dubai before winning in Strasbourg. Indeed, she has had some memorable moments on clay this year, including her first top-10 win, against Sofia Kenin in Rome, where she also had match points against eventual champion Iga Swiatek.
Krejcikova had a fight on her hands even before her fourth round against Stephens. The unseeded Czech was so unsettled by the occasion that she said she broke down in tears in the locker room ahead of her match on Court Suzanne Lenglen, and needed the comforting words of her psychologist to help overcome the nerves.
In her younger years she was coached and mentored by tennis legend Jana Novotna, who passed away due to cancer a few years back, and she remembered the former Wimbledonc champion after her win.
A 10-year challenge unfolding in front of us.
The 29-year-old Russian reached her first Grand Slam semi-final at the 52nd attempt, breaking a duck that stretched back to a decade, also at Roland Garros in 2011.
It seemed long overdue. The former Junior world No 1 had made the last eight at all four Slams, including three of the past five Australian Opens but fell at the quarter-final stage at the majors on six previous occasions since her 2007 debut. She never made a doubles semi-final either, in six attempts.
Admittedly, Pavlyuchenkova has had some tough quarter-finals, losing to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros in 2011, just a year after the Italian had claimed the title. Later that summer, Serena Williams defeated her at the same stage of the US Open.
It would be another five years before Pavlyuchenkova returned to the quarter-finals, this time at Wimbledon where Williams again got the better of her. Three more last-eight runs were to follow, all at the Australian Open in 2017, 2019 and 2020 with Venus Williams, Danielle Collins and Garbine Muguruza emerging victorious.
But her perseverance paid off.
At the French Open, she first knocked out third seed and hot favourite Aryna Sabalenka, the highest-ranked player left in the draw then, to avenge a semi-final loss to the Belarusian in Madrid. She followed it with another three-set win over Victoria Azarenka and then doubles partner Elena Rybakina – who had beaten Serena Williams in the previous round.
She even has the most wins against top-10 players – 37 – by any woman never to have made the top 10 herself. Her career-high ranking is 13, achieved back in 2011. She is also the oldest and most experienced semi-finalist, with 12 WTA titles to her name.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s Top 5 wins at Grand Slams
2011 Roland Garros R4, d. Vera Zvonareva 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2
2019 Australian Open R4, d. Sloane Stephens 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-3
2020 Australian Open R3, d. Karolina Pliskova 7-6(4), 7-6(3)
2021 Roland Garros R3, d. Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-0
At world No 85, Zidansek is the lowest-ranked player in the final four and a surprise package even in a first-time semi-final lineup. The 23-year-old had never previously reached beyond the second round of a Grand Slam, but at French Open she became the first woman from Slovenia to reach the quarter-finals and the semis.
The catalyst, it turns out, was her first-round upset of sixth seed Bianca Andreescu in a marathon match that lasted three hours and 20 minutes. She was twice two points away from defeat against the 2019 US Open champion, but won 9-7 in the final set – her first victory over a top-10 player.
She has yet to win a singles title (two runners-up) but according to the WTA site, Zidansek was a top 20 junior and won 17 ITF titles between 2014 and 2018 but has also suffered several injury breaks.
The daughter of a judge and school teacher, Zidansek revealed she veered away from attempts by her parents to drum up an interest in music but she went for sports and the outdoors instead. She is also a keen snowboarder in her winter off-time back home in the Alpine country.
That childhood passion is now her livelihood as she stands two wins from following in the footsteps of Mima Jausovec, who won Roland Garros in 1977 while competing for Yugoslavia. In Zidansek’s words “a legend of the sport in Slovenia.”
With AFP Inputs