A stone-cold dropshot. A deep, forceful forehand. A preposterously smooth backhand. Barbora Krejcikova employed these diverse shots – winners all – in the span of four points in her triumphant match at the 2021 French Open. The only thing missing was that marvelous forehand slice.
Hard to believe that nine months ago Krejcikova, 25, was already perceived as a career doubles specialist ranked outside the top 100 in singles. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova had a similarly unconventional path to her first Grand Slam singles final, returning to the scene of her first major quarterfinal – 10 years after the fact.
Variety, so pleasing in a player’s game, is now the widespread reality in women’s tennis. Krejcikova won Saturday’s final 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, but both players are unquestionably agents of the change challenging the foundations of the sport.
For change is the game’s new normal.
“It’s really hard to put the words together right now because so many emotions, so many things going through my mind,” Krejcikova said in her post-match press conference. “It’s something I have always dreamed about, winning here, my first doubles title, then some doubles title, then winning the mixed ones.
“Now I was just telling myself, `It would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories.’ Now it’s happening. I cannot believe it. Now it’s happening. Wow.”
Wow. We’ve been hearing this a lot lately.
Going back to Serena Williams’ title at the 2017 Australian Open, Krejcikova is the 13th different women’s major champion in 17 Grand Slam events. Naomi Osaka (four) and Simona Halep (two) are the only multiple winners in that time. On the men’s side, Novak Djokovic (six), Rafael Nadal (six) and Roger Federer (three) have won 15 of the past 16; Dominic Thiem, the 2020 US Open champion, is the only interloper.
It’s not exactly anarchy or chaos. Something more like fluidity.
Roland Garros, perhaps due to the shape-shifting volatility of red clay, is the unchallenged leader in this category. It might not be a coincidence. Francium, one of the most unstable of the naturally occurring elements, has a half-life of only 22 minutes.
France, after Krejcikova’s victory, has given us this:
- When Jelena Ostapenko won the 2017 title she was the first unseeded champion in 84 years. Krejcikova, following Iga Swiatek, makes it three in the past five years.
- Krejcikova is the sixth consecutive Roland Garros champion to collect her first Grand Slam singles title, joining, in order: Garbiñe Muguruza, Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Ashleigh Barty and Swiatek.
- Five of the past eight women’s finals in Paris have gone three sets. The last men’s final to go the five-set distance was in 2004, when a 17-year-old Nadal, nursing a broken ankle, last missed the French Open.
Barbora Krejcikova is the 2021 Roland Garros Champion.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) June 12, 2021
The 25yo Czech caps off her unbelievable rise by defeating Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 61 26 64 to win her 12th straight match & her 1st major singles title.
Wasn’t Top 100 9 months ago.
A Cinderella run to remember. #RG21 pic.twitter.com/ZufKNAx1v3
There were 14 former Grand Slam champions in the draw, and only one of them – Swiatek, the defending champion – made it to the quarterfinals. Halep tore a calf muscle in Rome. Bianca Andreescu and Muguruza lost in the first round. Osaka and Petra Kvitova withdrew after winning their first-round matches. Barty retired in the second round. Serena and Sofia Kenin lost in the fourth.
And so, there were six first-time major quarterfinalists, four of whom moved into their first Grand Slam semifinals and, ultimately, two first-time finalists.
In recent years, women’s tennis has experienced growing depth. This year’s French Open emphatically confirmed it. Not one match featured a pair of Top 10 players.
For Pavlyuchenkova, this wasn’t a lifetime achievement award – it was the achievement of a lifetime. She took down No.3-ranked Aryna Sabalenka in the third round, the 37th Top 10 win of her career and the most by a player never inside the Top 10 herself. Three weeks short of her 30th birthday, Pavlyuchenkova would have been the third-oldest first-time Grand Slam winner.
Change, as Pavlyuchenkova noted afterward, begins within.
“The most important I think is to believe in yourself,” she told reporters. “Even, like, I tell you like I didn’t expect that this tournament, this Roland Garros, `I’ll be in the final.’ Again I tell you, like, physically I wasn’t feeling super great, like ready 100 percent.
“Still, because of fighting and believing, you can still achieve it.”
In terms of experience, Krejcikova was a far darker horse. This was only her fifth main draw in a Grand Slam, 47 fewer than Pavlyuchenkova.
At the end of the 2019 season, she was ranked No.135. Last September, she was ranked No.116 when she entered three $25,000 ITF events in the Czech Republic. She won only five matches in Prague, Frydek Mistek and Prerov and saw her ranking improve just two spots.
Her next event was Roland Garros 2020, which had been moved to the fall. Krejcikova won three matches to reach the round of 16 and her ranking rose to No.85. It jumped to No.39 when she reached the final at Dubai in March, losing to Muguruza.
On Monday, she’ll be No.15, a leap of faith that netted 101 spots in nine months.
For someone unaccustomed to that singular stage, Krecikova showed poise in Paris, taking down No.5 seed Elina Svitolina in the third round, saving five set points in the quarterfinals against Coco Gauff and a match point against Maria Sakkari in the semifinals.
“Why is it happening, why so many players are first Grand Slam champions here?” Krejcikova said. “I don’t know. But I’m happy that I’m part of them.”
Of those past five first-time French Open champions, Muguruza and Halep have both gone on to win a second major. Presumably, World No.1 Barty and the 20-year-old Swiatek will do the same. What does the future hold for Krejcikova?
Impossible to know. It’s a fluid situation.
The only thing we know for sure: Krejcikova’s life will change, dramatically.
“Who knows?” she said. “I mean, I just want to be me. I just don’t want to change. I just want to still be me. I'm not planning to change, not planning to do anything different. I'm just planning to work hard again. This is such a big motivation to just work hard, enjoy this journey, enjoy tennis and everything.
“Yeah, I guess a lot of things going to change. For me, I’m just going to still be the little girl from my city, from my little city, that used to start on the tennis wall.”