Barbora Krejcikova surged into her first singles Grand Slam semifinal at Roland Garros with a 7-6(6), 6-3 defeat of No.24 seed Coco Gauff after saving five set points in the first set.
In the second, she led 5-0 but ultimately needed six match points to hold off a late-stage Gauff comeback. Overall, Krejcikova tallied 27 winners to 28 unforced errors, while Gauff's 25 winners were outweighed by 41 unforced errors. Both players struggled with inopportune double faults, with Krejcikova committing eight to Gauff's seven.
Krejcikova won the Roland Garros doubles crown in 2018 alongside Katerina Siniakova and reached World No.1 in that discipline the same year, but has seen her singles career take off in the past year. The Czech is currently ranked at a career high of World No.33 and has compiled a 24-9 record in 2021, including a run to the Dubai final in March and a maiden title two weeks ago in Strasbourg.
Not that she ever boxed herself in as a doubles player.
"I never really wanted to be a doubles specialist," she said. "Everybody just put a label on me. But we won our first two Grand Slams when I was 22. I felt like I don't want to be a doubles specialist when I was 22. I want to play singles. I want to work hard, improve my game. I want to play the top players actually in singles."
Krejcikova attributed some of her breakthrough singles success to perspective during the Covid-19 shutdown.
"Seeing that there are also other things in the world that actually are happening," Krejcikova said. "[That] are tougher and more difficult than just me playing tennis and losing.
"It just got to my mind. I'm like, Well, I go and I play tennis and I lose, but there are actually people that are losing their lives. I just felt more like, Well, just relax because you are healthy. Just appreciate this and just enjoy the game. You can do something what maybe other people would like to do as well but they cannot."
This first-time encounter between debutantes in the last eight of a major pitted two active nine-match winning streaks against each other. Gauff, 17, had also won her last tournament prior to Roland Garros in Parma and backed it up to become the youngest Grand Slam quarterfinalist since Nicole Vaidisova's semifinal run at Roland Garros 2006.
Krejcikova also now shares a record with compatriot Vaidisova. The pair both made their Grand Slam semifinal debut in Paris off the back of their Strasbourg title runs, and are the only champions in Strasbourg's 34-year history to go on to the Roland Garros final four.
The first set was a tense and narrowly contested affair, with little separating either player. Gauff settled quickly, striking six glorious groundstroke winners in the first three games alone and leaping into a 3-0 lead. But once Krejcikova found her groove on serve, she pegged the American back to 3-3 with a succession of redirected winners and aces.
Gauff again raised her level to advance to 5-3, and held her first set point after a pair of aces of her own. An impatient backhand error squandered it, though, and from then on it was Krejcikova who showed greater fortitude at the climax of the set.
Krejcikova faced another two set points serving down 5-6, forcing a Gauff error on the first and finding the line with a backhand winner on the second. A nervy tiebreak saw both players offering up a cascade of errors and double faults - until, trailing 4-6, Krejcikova hit her straps to win four straight points, three with forehand winners.
Having admitted to feelings of panic before her fourth-round match against Sloane Stephens, Krejcikova said that this clash had been different.
"Today, I was just super relaxed and I didn't have these feelings again," she said.
Gauff also pinpointed the first set as crucial, but was sanguine about the loss.
"I'm obviously disappointed that I wasn't able to close out the first set," she told the press. "To be honest, it's in the past, it already happened. After the match, my hitting partner told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that."
Some edginess continued into the second set, but after Krejcikova denied Gauff opportunities in both of the first two games, the teenager fell away. From game point up at 0-1, Gauff lost 14 straight points, barely able to find the court. Krejcikova raced quickly to 5-0, and seemed to have it wrapped up when she struck two beautiful backhand winners to bring up triple match point at 5-1.
But Gauff showed real resilience to unleash her own backhand to escape that game, and embark on an improbable comeback with relish. Serving at 2-5, she escaped another pair of match points - and her game was beginning to click again.
The gulf was too much to make up, though. Krejcikova steadied herself, cut out the errors that had crept back in, and served out victory at the second time of asking with a love hold.
"It actually came to my mind," said Krejcikova when asked whether she thought the match could slip away. "I can say that. Why not? But I'm like, 'You got to be aggressive, you just got to go, you got to play, you are still up. Just go for your shots. If you're going to stay aggressive, it's not going to slip.' That's what I was telling to myself."
After lifting the Strasbourg title one-and-a-half weeks ago, Krejcikova had said that her title run was "more emotional" due to the connection to late mentor Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champion who won her second WTA tournament at Strasbourg 1989. Novotna passed away in 2017 after a battle with cancer.
Now, she has matched the best Roland Garros performance of Novotna, who made the semifinals in 1990 and 1996.
"I always think about her," reflected Krejcikova. "Every time I go on court. I'm always wondering what she would tell me after such a run, all this winning matches and everything. I'm just really sad I cannot actually hear her and she cannot really say anything.
"I get a lot of support from her family and from her friends, everybody that was around her. Because I know they knew her really well, I think they can actually give me the words that she would say, so it's really helpful.
"I think she would just tell me that she's very proud. She would tell me just enjoy, keep going. It doesn't matter if you win or lose, you just have to do your best every single time you step on court. Just focus on tennis, just play. Just play, just enjoy, just have fun, appreciate that you can be here and you can do what you love.
"That's what I think she would tell me. She would be just extremely happy. She would be jumping and screaming. That's how I remember. That's actually what she was doing when I played ITFs and I won ITFs. I guess maybe it would be even bigger right now."