Hands up. Who called this final…? Anyone? Thought not.
Of course, there were unusual circumstances that may have contributed to this unlikely Anastasia Pavyluchenkova-Barbora Krejcikova finale at Roland Garros.
Two of the world’s top-three players, Simona Halep and Ash Barty, were forced out of the tournament due to injury. World No. 2 Naomi Osaka – who, admittedly, doesn’t exactly have a great record on clay – withdrew due to mental health struggles.
Others who were expected to be in contention have collapsed under the weight of expectation once the draw opened up – namely Aryna Sabalenka and Paula Badosa – while Greece’s Maria Sakkari, who took out last year’s runner-up and winner Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek, also couldn’t get over the finish line.
This tournament, as much as anything, has been about hanging in there.
Take Pavlyuchenkova. In the 12th Grand Slam quarter-final of her career – having lost six singles and five doubles matches in the past – she exorcised her mental demons to win 9-7 in the third set, having fought back from a set down.
Not to be outdone, Krejcikova – who will contest both the singles and doubles finals – saved match point in one of the most dramatic French Open semi-finals in recent times, edging the cagiest of affairs with Sakkari 9-7 in the decider.
There will be nerves come Saturday, there’s no doubt about that. But both have shown gritty resolve.
Krejcikova, the world No. 33 from the Czech Republic, has offered a contrasting – if perhaps unlikely – view of how she’ll be feeling.
‘I just think it’s going to be a lot of fun,’ she said. ‘I’m just really going to enjoy it because I was never expecting to actually be this far during this tournament. I’m just going to have fun and just going to enjoy and fight until the end.’
The feeling of surprise at going this far is shared by her opponent.
‘I definitely didn’t expect this year being in the final,’ said Pavlyuchenkova. ‘I guess you can’t expect those things. I was just there working hard, doing everything possible.
‘I just said to myself, You know what, this year let’s do whatever it takes, anything you can do to improve your game, your mentality. Started working with a sports psychologist, everything. Just I wanted to give it a try so I have no regrets after. That’s it.’
No player has endured a longer wait for a first major final than Pavlyuchenkova, who turns 30 next month. She had played in 52 Slams before this breakthrough.
Her first Slam quarter-final came as a 19-year-old a decade ago at this tournament. Having been a junior world No. 1, few would have been surprised at that stage to see her seriously make her mark in the women’s game.
In reaching the final, she quipped: ‘Fourteen-year-old me would tell me, What took you so long?’
The same weight of expectation has not fallen on Krejcikova’s shoulders. She won her first WTA title this season and had yet to crack the top-100 a year ago.
Known as a doubles specialist – with two major titles under her belt – until recent times, Krejcikova can now win a Slam title in what is just her fifth main draw appearance.
Now on an 11-match win streak, Krejcikova has proven herself to be icy cool under pressure, wriggling herself out of uncomfortable situations when her opponents were struggling to hold their nerve.
She puts her icy cool demeanour down to her Czech genes.
‘It’s indescribable, how I’m playing all of these matches and I’m calm,” she told the Czech press after beating Sakkari. ‘I’m lucky – I take after my father. It’s in my genes. Thank god he’s such a calm guy.
‘It’s important [to keep on top of your emotions]. When Ivan Lendl played, he was always stone-faced, and he played well and was successful. The thing is that I’m calm on the inside too. I don’t get nervous. So what comes out of me is actually what is happening inside of me. I’m glad I have that [quality] – I think it’s something that may hinder other girls.’
Keeping that calm on Saturday afternoon could prove the key and another tight battle should be expected.
Attempting to predict anything in the women’s singles this tournament feels a waste of time but for one last throw of the dice – and this one really is a toss of a coin – I’ll lump for Krejcikova to keep her nerve once more. Prediction: Krejcikova in 3.
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