It's not as if we didn't anticipate a surprise name or two landing in the final four. But four first-time Roland Garros semifinalists for the first time in the Open Era?
Didn't see that coming. But make no mistake, the remaining players are all worthy of being exactly where they are, on the verge of a first major title.
How will this go? What are the keys? Our intrepid reporters share their thoughts:
No.31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs. Tamara Zidansek
Key for Pavlyuchenkova: Composure
It seemed evident that Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova would one day get to a Grand Slam semifinal, even as far back as 15 years ago, when she started dominating the juniors. But after her first six Grand Slam quarterfinals -- all of which ended in defeat -- what led to her final four breakthrough in her 52nd main-draw appearance at a major?
“I think I have always had the game,” Pavlyuchenkova said, following her quarterfinal victory. “It's just my mental [game] wasn't there. ... I'm working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recently, and already I feel like it's starting to pay off.”
Pavlyuchenkova, who is still just 29 years old, has honed her powerful groundstroke game to a level that has brought her 12 WTA singles titles and 37 victories over Top 10 opponents (the most achieved by any player who has not reached the Top 10 themselves). It is inarguable that Pavlyuchenkova could crash any draw over the past decade.
To make a Grand Slam breakthrough, though, Pavlyuchenkova had to keep herself composed in the moments that mattered most to her. That will be the key to her success going forward, as it was during her gritty three-set upsets of Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka, as well as in her quarterfinal against Elena Rybakina, where she fought back from a break down in a 9-7 third set.
Against a less seasoned Zidansek and her eye-catching forehand, Pavlyuchenkova must find that composure again while also bringing her experience and power into this milestone match. Pavlyuchenkova’s businesslike demeanor this fortnight heralds that likelihood.
“I actually have always wanted to be in the semifinals so much before that I think I have achieved it now and I'm sort of, like, neutral reaction,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “I feel like I'm doing my work, I'm doing my job, and there is still matches to go through, still work to be done.”
If Pavlyuchenkova can keep it in neutral, she just might glide into her first major final. -- Jason Juzwiak
Key for Zidansek: Heavy forehand
Even in the context of the overall semifinal lineup, World No.85 Tamara Zidansek is the surprise package. She is the only player remaining who has yet to win a title or be ranked inside the Top 50.
But the 23-year-old Slovenian's potential has long been apparent to those paying attention. Zidansek was a Top 20 junior and won 17 ITF titles between 2014 and 2018 as she made her way on to the main tour, a rise highlighted by frequent long winning streaks but also slowed by several injury breaks. Since her arrival, two 125 titles (Bol 2018-19) and two 250 finals (Nurnberg 2019, Bogota 2021) have helped her break the Top 100.
Zidansek's success is centered around a forehand that is tailor made for clay -- heavy topspin that she is able to direct from line to line. Of her 154 winners during this event, 109 have come from that wing. Some of the most nimble footwork on tour enables Zidansek to consistently run around it and find the sharpest of angles, and she can back it up with deft touch on the drop shot and at net.
The key for Zidansek will be in trusting her offence. Since 2018, some of the key losses that have prevented a breakthrough to the next level came down to lapsing into passivity. This was evident in her Bogota final loss to Maria Camila Osorio Serrano this year, as well as passages of play this fortnight when she was bagelled by Katerina Siniakova in the third round and saw a set lead slip away to Paula Badosa in the quarterfinals.
Unstoppable 🚀— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 8, 2021
World No. 85 Tamara Zidansek had previously never reached R3 at a major. She’s now a Grand Slam *semi-finalist* with a 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 takedown of No.33 seed Paula Badosa. #RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/ef0xgCQgsN
But Zidansek has also been learning how much going for her shots can pay off. In the first round, locked with No.6 seed Bianca Andreescu at 7-7 in the third set, she saved two break points with glorious forehand winners -- and closed out the win in the next game. Four matches later, she did the same at 6-6 in the third set against Badosa.
"I just knew I had to keep going for it," she said afterwards. "My mindset was stay focused, be aggressive. I knew that I can do a lot of damage with my forehand. I've just got to get into the right position."
In a first-time encounter with Pavlyuchenkova, Zidansek has both the defence to withstand the Russian's power and the weapons to exploit her movement. It's a question of trusting in the latter. -- Alex Macpherson
No.17 Maria Sakkari vs. Barbora Krejcikova
Key for Sakkari: Stay inspired
You would be hard-pressed to find another player on the WTA Tour who works as hard as Maria Sakkari. Whether it's time on the court or in the gym, Sakkari has always handled her career in the most professional, nose-to-the-grindstone way.
So it's ironic that the 25-year-old Greek star is through to the biggest result of her career after pumping the brakes and taking a breather. Sakkari came into the clay season white-hot after making her first WTA 1000 semifinal in Miami, where she defeated No.2 Naomi Osaka. But a trio of tough three-set losses on clay, her favorite surface, to Petra Kvitova, Karolina Muchova and Coco Gauff left her reeling.
So with her favorite Slam two weeks away, what did she do? She put the racquets down. With the encouragement from coach Tom Hill, Sakkari retreated to a Greek Island to rediscover her seemingly inextinguishable Spartan fire. It didn't take long to find her inspiration.
Consider the moment seized 👏— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 9, 2021
In her first career major quarter-final, 🇬🇷@mariasakkari earns the upset over defending champ and No.8 seed Iga Swiatek 6-4, 6-4. She'll face Krejcikova for a spot in the final.#RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/y4cWZwUnn2
"I just messaged Tom out of nowhere and I'm like, 'Tom, I'm ready to go back on court,'" Sakkari said. "I'm pretty positive that I'm going to do well from now on.
"He actually said, I'm excited that my player is coming back from retirement."
And come back she did. Sakkari may be the highest-ranked player left of the final four, but she's done the heaviest lifting to earn her spot. She has beaten three Top 20 players in a row -- Elise Mertens, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek -- including the seemingly unstoppable defending champion in a clinical two sets.
Sakkari has been the best server in the tournament, leading the semifinalists with 26 aces, winning 77% of her first-serve points and 82% of her service games. She also tops the leaderboard in return games won over the fortnight, having won 25 of 51 (49%). The tennis is there. Now to see if her strong shoulders can keep swinging away under the pressure of being the title favorite. -- Courtney Nguyen
Key for Krejcikova: Aggressive play
When you’re in uncharted territory, it can be hard to act like you’ve been there before.
Krejcikova, at the age of 25, is into her first Grand Slam singles semifinal – and only her fifth major main draw overall – but to get there she drew on her vast experience in elite doubles competition.
She’ll need to do it again Thursday against Maria Sakkari.
In a span of five weeks in the summer of 2018, in a beautiful burst of synergy, Krejcikova and partner Katerina Siniakova won the doubles titles at Roland Garros and Wimbledon. The following year, Krejcikova won the Australian Open mixed doubles with Rajeev Ram – and then defended her title with Nikola Mektic. Back in February she three-peated with Ram, giving her five Grand Slam titles.
In the quarterfinals against Coco Gauff, Krejcikova faced five set points in the first set. The Czech Republic athlete saved all of them, three with winners. Two of those were fabulous forehands in the tie-breaker, down 4-6 and 5-6.
That is pure belief, and it sustained her in a 7-6 (6), 6-3 victory, the biggest of her singles career. And while there were nerves – Krejcikova won by converting her sixth match point – ultimately, she mastered them.
This is what she told herself when the match seemed to be slipping away: “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.” -- Greg Garber