Even in one of the most competitive and unpredictable era of women’s tennis, unseeded Barbora Krejcikova becoming the French Open 2021 champion is a surprise. The latest first-time women’s singles Grand Slam champion, the unseeded 25-year-old mounted an unexpected, yet extraordinarily composed, run to the trophy with a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the final.
The number five has an interesting connection to the newly-crowned French Open champion.
The world No 33 was playing just her fifth main draw at a Major. This was just the third Grand Slam she has made the direct cut for after losing in qualifying 15 times since 2014. She has never played a singles main draw match at Wimbledon or US Open so far.
This makes her a very, very unexpected winner.
But the former doubles world No 1 also has five Grand Slam titles in doubles. She won French Open and Wimbledon 2018 with Katerina Siniakova and has three straight mixed doubles titles at the Australian Open.
This makes her an experienced campaigner at the final level.
At Roland Garros, where the last five women’s titles have been won by first-time champions, this unusual combination of factors meant we had another new winner. But one who has shown enough signs that she is on the verge of a breakthrough. The 25-year-old is on a 12-match winning streak on clay and has now won her first two singles titles in her last two finals.
Her climb in singles may have been delayed by most parameters, but it skyrocketed once she found her feet on clay. The 25-year-old was not even in the top 100 at the start of last year’s delayed Roland Garros.
But in a combination of luck and pluck, she reached the fourth round in a section that saw Serena Williams withdraw and Victoria Azarenka exit early. That run put her in the top 100 and the rise continued as she reached the final at the WTA 1000 in Dubai earlier this year and then won her first singles title at Strasbourg on the eve of French Open. She even held match points against eventual champion Iga Swiatek at Rome. From 114 before French Open 2020, she will make her Top 20 debut at World No 15 in the next WTA rankings.
A defining feature of Krejcikova’s championship this year was the composure she showed, in her demeanour and her shot-making. To her credit, she openly acknowledged her nerves, saying she had to lock herself because she was crying and talked to her psychologist to deal with the pre-match panic.
But watch her on court, and one would wonder: what panic?
Never once did she seem to lose her cool on court in crunch moments, not even after throwing in double faults to get broken in the first game of the final. She saved match point and then endured a wrong call on another match point in a marathon semi-final against Maria Sakkari to reach her first singles final. In the quarter-final, she saved five set points in the first set against Coco Gauff and squandered five match points before clinching it. In fact, she dropped the very first set she played at the Major.
The spotlight came onto her only from the third round, when she knocked out fifth seed Elina Svitolina in straight sets and then backed it up with another dominant win over 2018 runner-up Sloane Stephens.
“I woke up and I just felt really bad. I don’t know why or what for and half an hour before the match, I didn’t even want to step on the court. I had to lock myself in the physio room and I had to talk to my psychologist – I was actually crying. She told me if you can overcome this, what you feel right now, it’s going to be a huge win. Win on the court or lose on the court, it’s going to be a personal win.”
In a Grand Slam that opened up as the top 10 seeds and former Grand Slam champions fell early and at an event where the last five editions were won by first-time winners, Krejcikova capitalised on her chances and did it with an exemplary calm.
It was a mark of just how far she had come. From the teenager who was brave enough to approach Jana Novotna in Czech Republic, to the youngster who saw her coach and mentor succumb to cancer and now a Grand Slam champion who dedicated her win to the late tennis legend.
Yet, her French Open sojourn is not yet over and she has a shot at more glory as she prepares to play the women’s doubles final on Sunday.
Having this doubles experience – her first girls and women’s doubles title came at Roland Garros too – has helped, but the Czech had enough of being labelled a ‘doubles specialist’.
“I never really wanted to be a doubles specialist. Everybody, they just put a label on me like, ‘Yeah, you play doubles, you are a doubles specialist,. But I never thought I just want to be a doubles specialist….I want to play singles, I want to work hard, improve my game. I want to play the top players in singles. It was really frustrating that I just wasn’t able to get there,” she said after reaching the semi-finals.
With a Grand Slam trophy in just her fifth main draw outing, she has achieved the dream and changed that perception of her forever. From now on, when she plays her first-ever Wimbledon as a seeded player or in the doubles final, she will always be the unexpected finalist who became a confident champion.
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