Barbora Krejcikova had nothing but a dream of becoming a better tennis player when she and her parents walked up to Jana Novotna's house in her hometown of Omice in the Czech Republic in 2013.
"I went there and I had a letter, and I met her in her garden," Krejcikova told The New York Times in 2018. "And she was like, ‘Whoa, who are these people?’ And I told her that I was a tennis player and I just turned 18, and maybe you can watch me or help me find out what can be the next level of my tennis."
To Krejcikova's surprise, Novotna was intrigued. The 1998 Wimbledon champion who held a special place in every tennis fan's heart after her emotional quest to win a major, could not have been more gracious. At that point, an 18-year-old Krejcikova had yet to crack the Top 300 in singles. She was a talented doubles with partner Katerina Siniakova - the duo is in the Roland Garros doubles final on Sunday - but Krejcikova, who beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Saturday for the singles title, never saw herself as a doubles specialist.
"Everybody, they just put a label on me like, Yeah, you play doubles, you are a doubles specialist. But I never thought I just want to be a doubles specialist. 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.
"It was really frustrating that I just wasn't able to get there. But I always felt like if I'm going to work hard, I'm just going to continue, just try to be patient, which is not really my thing, but I felt sooner or later I'm just going to get there and I will have a chance to play all these top players, to learn something, gain some experience."
Novotna wasn't just an informal advisor to Krejcikova. The Czech legend was a true coach, right in the trenches. She traveled with Krejcikova to far-flung cities to compete in ITF 10Ks and 15Ks, guided her along her journey, and tried the best she could to transform her ambitious but self-doubting young protege into a believer. Krejcikova was the last player Novotna coached before she passed away in 2017 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.
"I’m so happy to have met her, that I was able to spend time with her and learn from her," Krejcikova told the Czech press after her dramatic match-point saving victory over Maria Sakkari in the semifinals. "It’s just comforting. Even while Jana is not here with us, her parents and her friends are here, who write to me. Martina [Navratilova] is here, who was so close to Jana, as was Mr. [Jan] Kodes. It is so lovely and comforting.
"I’m so happy that, although she is not here and can’t talk to me, there are other people stepping in for her, so to speak. Telling me what she would have said, how she sees the situation. How much she cheers for me. And they’re so happy that Jana had the right ‘eye’ to send me where she sent me."
After her semifinal win over Sakkari, Krejcikova turned to her box to thank the Czech legends who have carried on Novotna's spirit during this inspired run to her maiden major singles final, including the two pillars of Czech tennis, Navratilova and Kodes.
"I’m a huge fan of them both," Krejcikova told Czech reporters. "I actually don’t remember their matches because I’m of a different age, but I’ve always known the names and have always admired everything they’ve done for tennis, and how they inspired all of us [Czech players] who are currently playing.
"It’s such an honor whenever a message comes from Mr. Kodes or from Martina. They just want to help you. They’re so warm to you, and they want to give you that self-belief and energy. It’s so nice. And I really appreciate it, that we have such great former athletes and tennis players, and how they want to help us all so that tennis in the Czech Republic keeps on going. They help us to motivate each other and win."
As she bids to not only become the first Czech woman to win Roland Garros since Hana Mandlikova in 1981 but also the first woman to sweep the Roland Garros singles and doubles titles since Mary Pierce in 2000, Krejcikova is adamant that she will not let the moment overwhelm her.
"[From here on in] Whatever will be, will be. I’ll take home a memory with me, whether it’s a plate or a trophy. I don’t think it matters at this point. I’m just going to enjoy it, and fight until the last ball."