To say Barbora Krejcikova wasn’t a favorite at the French Open would be an understatement. The 25-year-old Czech is playing only her fifth main draw at a Grand Slam in singles and broke into the top 100 only last year, after a fourth-round show at Roland Garros.
Indeed, the world No 33 was perhaps not even a majority pick in her semi-final against 17th Maria Sakkari, especially after losing serve twice in the first two games and then being 3-5 down in the decider.
But the unseeded Czech proved to be an unexpected winner in what turned out to be an unusual semi-final.
She beat Sakkari, the highest-ranked player among the final four, 7-5, 4-6, 9-7, battling for a marathon three hours and 18 minutes. In a nerve-wracking clash of wills that peaked in extra time, Krejcikova fought off a match point, broke Sakkari serving for the match, rallied after a controversial umpiring call on another match point and eventually prevailed to win one of the biggest matches of her young career.
The titanic match had more twists and turns than a winding uphill road, but when it came to the last few points that counted, it was Krejcikova who held her nerve to reach the destination – her first singles Grand Slam. She is now on an 11-match winning streak after winning her first singles title at Strasbourg and will meet fellow first-time Grand Slam finalist Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in what will be the most important match of her career so far.
A streaky semi-final
The second women’s singles semi-final, uncharted territory for both competitors, was a very different kind of thriller – not a straightforward battle of who struck the better and beautiful hits, more a test of who played simple but good shots. Statistically, little separated the players. The momentum fluctuated constantly and it came down to raw nerves and that’s where Krejcikova – who has won five Grand Slam titles in doubles – stood out with her composure.
Both players were understandably nervous and the match began with three straight breaks of serve. Sakkari though was the first player to hold and took a 3-1 lead but the former doubles world No 1 then bounced back to win four straight games and make it 5-3
But in what would become a defining feature of the match, she couldn’t protect her lead and was broken to love as Sakkari rattled off eight points in a row to level at 5-5. The Greek 17th seed couldn’t hold the advantage for long either as a love hold made her serve to stay in the set, which she was unable to.
The second set saw Sakkari, a player who came into the match having beaten last year’s runner-up Sofia Kenin and then reigning champion Iga Swiatek in the past two rounds, race to a 4-0 lead.
She fended off a fightback from Krejcikova to serve it out at 6-4 and then took a 3-1 lead in the decider as well. Sakkari, who had saved break points in two of her service games, then had a match point at 5-3.
But just when the match seemed done-and-dusted, Krejcikova’s resilience shone through and then began the most thrilling part of the match.
Yes, in extra time.
It all seemed routine and perhaps a little less sparkling for a semi-final till this point; aggression and nerves winning a lot of the points. Krejcikova was playing good, solid tennis – her groundstrokes were swinging well, the court coverage was optimal, the net play smart. It was good but not game-changing.
But when the Czech got a life, saving match point with a sweeping backhand volley, there seemed to be some shift.
She broke the error-prone Sakkari serving for the match with a ridiculously tense moonball rally, held comfortably for a couple of games before squandering three match points of her own at 7-6, one courtesy of the net cord which added to the drama. Sakkari saved them with a winner and an ace and conducted the crowd.
The tension was thick and the players were tight. The final roll of dice, the one that seemingly decided the match, was yet to come.
Krejcikova had a fourth match point after a double fault. A forehand from the Greek was called long, she thought she had won the match and raised her arms... Only for the chair umpire to overrule the call. TV replays and Hawkeye showed the ball to be out, she had indeed won the match but human decision-making went other way.
This could have been a game-changing moment. But Krejcikova brought up a fifth match point – once again a disputed call where the umpire had to step down. This time, she converted with a backhand winner down the line.
In the end, the match was best summed up in a touching line by the victor.
“I always wanted to play a match like this, a challenging match where we’re both playing so well. Even if I lost today, I’m very proud of myself. Fighting, in life, it’s the most important thing,” said Krejcikova.
Fight she did, and that’s how she won a semi-final not many expected her to.
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