It was nip and tuck but, at the last, it was unseeded Czech Barbora Krejcikova who hoisted the French Open trophy aloft after a 3-set victory over Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, the No 31 seed, in the final at Roland Garros on Saturday.
I was going through a really hard time when Jana [Novotna] passed away, I was with her most of the time. Her last words were pretty much 'just enjoy it and try to win a Grand Slam'. I know from somewhere she is looking after me and all this what happened in the last two weeks is pretty much because she is looking after me from up there. It is amazing I had the chance to meet her and she was an inspiration. I hope she is really happy and I am extremely happy. Barbora Krejcikova
“It’s something I have always dreamed about,” Krejcikova said. “Winning here, my first doubles title, then winning the mixed ones.
“Now I was just telling myself, It would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories. Now it’s happening. I cannot believe it. Wow!”
Both players were contesting a Grand Slam singles final for the first time, but it was Krejcikova who prevailed, 6-1 2-6 6-4, over the hampered Pavlyuchenkova to claim the biggest victory of her career.
The Russian had her left leg wrapped in tape in the second set, and later revealed that she had been suffering from a knee problem since the third round, but she fought throughout before bowing out.
“My leg, I have to be honest, I wasn’t mentioning because I was still in the tournament,” Pavlyuchenkova told reporters. “I didn’t want my opponents to hear. But the Sabalenka match [in the third round], I was actually in a really bad shape physically.
“I don’t know how I even won that match because I also had a medical treatment there, I had to wrap my leg. I’ve struggled with my knees for a while, with my left knee.
“That caused a lot of pain in my knee after because I compensate a lot in my body. Actually in the third set during the Sabalenka match, I said to myself, ‘If I win this match, I’m going to cry’. It’s such a shame, I play so good, but my body says this to me: ‘I don’t want to continue’.”
It left Pavlyuchenkova with problems on her service games, and she was broken 6 times by Krejcikova, who made the brighter start and convincingly wrapped up the first set with the loss of just a single game.
Pavlyuchenkova fought back to level with a battling performance in the second, cutting out the errors and beginning to do real damage with her forehand.
After saving a break point in the opening game, the Russian looked much more composed and began to strike winners regularly off both her forehand and backhand wings to move into a 5-1 lead when, after being pulled out wide to her left, she grimaced and grabbed at her left thigh.
She called the trainer at the change of ends to have her leg heavily strapped, but it did not stop her clinching the set in the next game with a backhand drilled onto the line.
Having grabbed the momentum, Pavlyuchenkova then had to endure a very long bathroom break as Krejcikova left the court, leaving the Russian to ponder for more than 7 minutes at the Umpire’s chair.
On her return, it was Krejcikova who had lost her timing, though, and she gave a rare negative outburst after Pavlyuchenkova held in the opening game of the deciding set.
The 29-year old Russian looked increasingly uncomfortable on her serve as well as her movement and the Czech pressed home her advantage, using her deft drop-shot, deep forehand and smooth backhand to great effect to move into a 5-3 lead.
Nerves showed when she missed 2 match points on Pavlyuchenkova’s serve before double-faulting on the 3rd but the Russian went long on the 4th and Krejcikova held her arms aloft.
Krejcikova’s calm approach and neat, contained game had carried her to wins over Elina Svitolina, Sloane Stephens, Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari in the last four rounds, with the semi-final an extraordinary occasion that saw her save a match point, and now she had reeled off 6 straight games to claim her maiden Grand Slam title.
While nerves had played their part, she had quickly found her stride against Pavlyuchenkova, who was playing in her 52nd Slam and was left wondering whether this moment would ever happen for her.
The Czech pointed skyward, remembering her mentor Jana Novotna, who died of cancer in 2017, after Pavlyuchenkova’s last shot landed tight to the baseline but was called out.
“I was going through a really hard time when Jana passed away, I was with her most of the time,” Krejcikova said. “Her last words were pretty much ‘just enjoy it and try to win a Grand Slam’.
“I know from somewhere she is looking after me and all this what happened in the last two weeks is pretty much because she is looking after me from up there.
“It is amazing I had the chance to meet her and she was an inspiration.
“I hope she is really happy and I am extremely happy.”
Krejcikova, who was not even inside the top 100 a year ago, will have the chance to seal another title at Roland Garros when she plays in the doubles final on Sunday, and could become the first woman to win the singles and doubles titles on the red clay in Paris since France’s Mary Pierce in 2000.
The World No 33 and compatriot Katerina Siniakova will aim for a 3rd Grand Slam doubles crown when they play Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Iga Swiatek.
“I’m super happy I was able to enjoy it,” said Krejcikova. “I’m just really happy.
“It is hard to put into words because I cannot believe what just happened. I cannot believe I actually won a Grand Slam.”
For Pavlyuchenkova, who came so close to claiming her first Grand Slam title, she said she was ultimately betrayed by her own body.
“When I was landing on my serve, I felt a lot of pain on the back of my leg. It was almost like pulling, so I had to wrap it up. Then I lost that game 4-3 [in the third set] because it was against the wind,” she explained.
“I always felt like she was pushing on my serve. I felt like I needed to do a little bit more with my serve.”
Pavlyuchenkova was a former junior No 1 and ranked in the world’s top 30 at just 17, but she wilted under the pressure over the following years and even considered quitting tennis altogether before deciding to commit herself fully to improving her fitness and mindset this season.
“Fourteen-year-old me would tell me, like, ‘What took you so long?’ ” Pavlyuchenkova said after the semis.
Waiting over a decade for this match, it was all over in 2 hours, but the Russian remains grateful that she had reached the final, after never making it beyond the last 8 at any Grand Slam before.
“The most important I think is to believe in yourself,” she told reporters. “Even, like, I tell you like I didn’t expect that this tournament, this Roland Garros, `I’ll be in the final.’ Again I tell you, like, physically I wasn’t feeling super great, like ready 100 percent.
“Still, because of fighting and believing, you can still achieve it.
“I want to believe that the best is yet to come, so I think that’s how I should approach the whole situation,” she added.
“I said to myself today, watching my friends, that at the start of course I was close to cry, it’s always sad to lose, but then when I looked at my friends, I think there are much more important stuff in life than sometimes even this trophy.
“I feel loved. I think that’s the best thing you can have is friends, and a life outside tennis, as well, which is actually even meant more than the trophy today.”
In this unpredictable era of the women’s game, Krejcikova stands out as a hugely surprising champion, pigeon-holed as a doubles specialist having reached World No 1 in that discipline but always feeling she also could be a top singles player.
Her breakthrough arrived at Roland Garros last October, when a run to the 4th round helped her move into the top 100, and she has not looked back since, winning her first WTA singles title in Strasbourg on the eve of Paris.
With her 12th victory in a row, Krejcikova, playing in just her 5th Grand Slam singles main draw, will now climb to No 15 in the rankings after becoming the 3rd unseeded women’s champion in Paris.
They have all come in the last 5 years, Krejcikova joining 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko and Iga Swiatek, who lifted the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen last year.
The French Open only came down to a pair of first-time finalists after being rewritten by attrition in the women’s draw – Naomi Osaka, who had won the previous two major tournaments in Melbourne and New York, was the first to go, exiting after 48 hours citing mental health concerns; while World No 1 Ash Barty followed her out soon after with a hip injury; Serena Williams was upset in the fourth round; and defending champion, Iga Swiatek, failed to get past the quarter-finals of the singles draw.
“I’m just really happy that I was able to handle it as I did, that mentally I think that was the biggest key,” Krejcikova said. “I spoke with my psychologist again and we spoke about it a lot.
“I just knew that as soon as I’m going to enter the court, I’m just not going to be panicking anymore. That was actually happening… I mean, it’s something I have always dreamed about, winning here – my first doubles title, then some [other Grand Slam] doubles title, then winning the mixed ones.
“It’s really hard to put words together right now because I cannot believe what just happened.I cannot believe that I actually won a Grand Slam.”
The Czech 25-year old had already won 5 Grand Slam finals with a partner, 2 in women’s doubles and 3 in mixed, and she leaves Paris as the French Open singles champion.