Fifty-two majors into her career, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova is into her first Grand Slam final, where Saturday at Roland Garros, she will face Barbora Krejcikova.
"Yeah, I had a lot of doubts because, let's say I could beat [some] Top 10 players and make the quarterfinal of a major," Pavlyuchenkova said in her post-match news conference. "I was very close to semifinals a couple times, but then it wouldn't happen. It was just up and down in terms of results."
The results went her way this time. After her straight-sets win against Tamara Zidansek, Pavlyuchenkova spoke of the mental toughness it took to get to this point. Tactics, routines and discipline were a few words she tossed around.
She'll need her full arsenal against Krejcikova, who saved match point on Thursday to take down Maria Sakkari in 3 hours, 18 minutes. While Pavlyuchenkova set an Open Era record for most major appearances before making a maiden major final, Krejcikova has done so in just her fifth main draw appearance. Since 2000, only Bianca Andreescu has made a Slam final in fewer main draw appearances.
How will this final play out? We make the case for both players:
Ten years ago, few would have been surprised to see Pavlyuchenkova in the Roland Garros final. That year, 2011, was the one in which the 19-year-old former junior World No.1 seemed to be making a long-anticipated move toward the top of the game after a couple of years consolidating a Top 50 position. A quality run in Paris saw her take out No.3 seed Vera Zvonareva to reach her first Grand Slam quarterfinal, where she led defending champion Francesca Schiavone 6-1, 4-1.
But Pavlyuchenkova was unable to close the indefatigable Schiavone out - and for the next decade, that would remain as far as she would get, not only at Roland Garros but at any major. In that time, the Russian put together a career that garnered a double-edged reputation. On the one hand, her peak performances made her dangerous to any player on tour and capable of mowing through most fields. On the other, there would only ever be a handful of them per year, and whispers of "unfulfilled potential" were never far during the early-round losses that littered her seasons.
This is epitomised by current World No.32 Pavlyuchenkova holding the record for most wins against Top 10 players (37, including a victory vs. Aryna Sabalenka in the third round) among players who have yet to reach the Top 10 themselves.
Form has rarely meant much when predicting Pavlyuchenkova's results, but her ability to deal with pressure has. This was put to the test coming into the last four, when she suddenly and surprisingly found herself the most accomplished player remaining. Her 12 career trophies - the biggest two at 500 level, Paris and Moscow in 2014 - dwarfed the other semifinalists' title counts (one each for Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari; none for Tamara Zidansek).
Against Zidansek, Pavlyuchenkova dealt with being the arguable favourite with aplomb. Only rarely did she seem nervous; instead, she was businesslike. Afterwards, the look on her face was one of relief, not joy - the look of someone who wasn't in a state of disbelief, but who had been expecting this of herself for a decade.
🇷🇺🇷🇺🇷🇺— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) June 10, 2021
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (@NastiaPav) is the 1st Russian woman to advance to a Slam final since 2015 (Sharapova, AO).
She is the 1st woman to play more than 50 majors before reaching her first major final.
Defeats Tamara Zidansek 75 63.#RG21 pic.twitter.com/XZoqrJV7Nd
"Fourteen-year-old me would tell me, What took you so long?" Pavlyuchenkova said afterwards. She's spoken recently about playing with more of a sense of fun - and in her self-aware way also acknowledges this is a cliché she would once have mocked. But this week, she's tapping into the expectations she admits to having struggled with to find confidence.
Grand Slam titles were predicted for Pavlyuchenkova when she was 15, when she was 17, when she was 20. It's been a "long road," she says, but this moment has been waiting for her all along. -- Alex Macpherson
A year ago, Barbora Krejcikova was a top doubles player who had never cracked the Top 100 as a singles player. Just as she was coming to terms with her fate, she made an inspired run to her first Round of 16 at Roland Garros last fall. That run vaulted her into the Top 100 and she's been rocketing up the rankings ever since.
Now, on Saturday, she will look to win a major title in just her fifth main draw appearance at a Slam.
This is the stuff of Disney movies.
Czech Mate 🇨🇿— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 10, 2021
In just her fifth Slam singles main draw, @BKrejcikova earns a maiden major final in the longest women’s semi-final match in Paris, eliminating Sakkari in epic style 7-5, 4-6, 9-7.#RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/1rhoSdhbY8
Krejickova's Paris run isn't coming out of nowhere. She's been building her game and her confidence week by week, match by match, for the last nine months. In February she made her first WTA 1000 final in Dubai. In Rome she earned her first Top 10 win en route to the Round of 16, where she held match points on eventual champion Iga Swiatek. Last month she captured her first WTA title on the clay in Strasbourg.
Whether they were higher-ranked or more accomplished, Krejcikova has dismantled her opposition in Paris all the same. Ranked No.33 and unseeded, she's beaten four quality seeds in her six matches, defeating No.32 Ekaterina Alexandrova, No.5 Elina Svitolina, No.24 Coco Gauff, and No.18 Maria Sakkari. Aside from a self-described panic attack 30 minutes before her Round of 16 against 2018 finalist Sloane Stephens, Krejcikova has played with ice in her veins. She's now on an 11-match winning streak and has won 13 of her last 14 matches on clay.
"It’s indescribable, how I’m playing all of these matches and I’m calm," she told the Czech press after her match-point saving epic against Maria Sakkari in the semifinals. "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."
Into the #RG21 singles final and doubles semifinals (w/ Siniakova), Barbora Krecjikova is bidding to become the 1st woman to sweep Roland Garros since Mary Pierce (2000).— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) June 10, 2021
The last woman to make the final of both was another Czech, Lucie Safarova in 2015 (won doubles).
Fitness will be a question for Krejcikova on Saturday. Her win over Sakkari was the second-longest match of the tournament and she'll turn around to play in the doubles semifinal on Friday. Recovery will be key.
But when it comes to whether she can execute her intelligent, chess-like tennis in the biggest match of her career, the Czech has already allayed any fears. She saved five set points against Coco Gauff in the quarterfinals to win 7-6(6), 6-3 and she kept her head down the stretch against Sakkari.
Krejcikova has kept her wits about her for the entire fortnight. On Saturday, it will just be about the tennis. --Courtney Nguyen