Unseeded Karolina Muchova clinched her first spot in a Grand Slam final, saving a match point to stun World No.2 Aryna Sabalenka 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5 on Thursday at Roland Garros.
Muchova, a former Top 20 player currently ranked No.43, erased the match point while down 5-2 in the third set, then reeled off five games in a row for the win.
"Emotions, it's been a roller coaster," Muchova said after her win. "2-5 in the third, but I still kind of knew it's just one break and I was waiting for my chances. ... I just try to play point by point. Super glad that I turned it around and then managed to win the match."
Muchova leveled her head-to-head record against Sabalenka at 1-1 with the 3-hour and 13-minute comeback victory, which ranks inside the 20 longest matches of the 2023 season.
Keeping us guessing until the very end 😮— Roland-Garros (@rolandgarros) June 8, 2023
After the tightest of battles, it’s @karomuchova7 who prevails against world No.2 Sabalenka 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5 to make her first Grand Slam final.#RolandGarros pic.twitter.com/KAoq24tav9
Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open earlier this year, suffered her first loss at a 2023 Grand Slam event after starting the year 12-0.
Another Top 3 win: Once again, Muchova brought her best tennis when facing the world’s top-ranked players. She improved her record to 5-0 against players ranked inside the Top 3.
"I didn't really even know about this statistic," Muchova said. "It just shows me that I can play against [the Top 3]. I can compete, and obviously the matches are super close. Even today, match ball down, you really never know if I win or lose, but it's great to know that I have the chance to win, and I win against the top players, and that for sure boosts my confidence."
Muchova will put her undefeated win-loss record against the Top 3 on the line again when she faces World No.1 and defending champion Iga Swiatek in Saturday's final. Swiatek held off No.14 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia in Thursday’s second semifinal. Muchova beat Swiatek in their only previous meeting, in Prague in 2019.
Surging back to the top: The 26-year-old Muchova, who has been beset with injuries throughout her career, is projected to return to the Top 20 of the WTA rankings on Monday. If she wins her first Grand Slam title on Saturday, she could make her Top 10 debut.
Muchova had previously reached the 2021 Australian Open semifinals and two Wimbledon quarterfinals, but she had never passed the third round in four previous main-draw appearances in Paris. However, she found top form on the clay this fortnight, dropping just one set en route to the semifinals, then coming back from the brink against Sabalenka.
"I think everything has its own time," Muchova said. "In the past, it was not easy. That's actually what makes me to appreciate this result even more now, because I know what I have been through in the past. To be now in a Grand Slam final, it's for sure my dream.
"There have been many moments, many lows, I would say, from one injury to another. ... Some doctors told me, you know, maybe you'll not do sport anymore. But I always kept it kind of positive in my mind, and tried to work and do all the exercises to be able to come back."
Muchova becomes the fifth Czech woman to make the French Open singles final in the Open Era (since 1968), along with Martina Navratilova, Lucie Safarova, Marketa Vondrousova and Barbora Krejcikova.
Key moments: In the first set, Muchova failed to convert a set point at 5-4, but she regrouped and held firm through the tiebreak, converting her second set point with a backhand winner down the line.
In the topsy-turvy second set, Muchova led by an early 2-0 break before Sabalenka charged to her own break lead at 4-3. Once again, the set was decided by a tiebreak, and the Sabalenka power game prevailed this time around, tying up the match.
More power plays by Sabalenka gave her a break for 4-2 in the third set, and she consolidated with an ace for a 5-2 lead. Sabalenka held a match point in the next game after a long miscue by Muchova; the Czech saved that chance with a forehand winner, but Sabalenka still served for the match at 5-3.
However, Muchova carved her way back into contention, drawing errors from Sabalenka and reaching level footing at 5-5. In that game, Sabalenka hit two consecutive double faults from 40-15 up, and two points later, Muchova slammed a forehand winner to break for 6-5.
After winning her fourth straight game, Muchova served out the match with a commanding hold at love, completing the stunning comeback. Muchova was a perfect 5-for-5 on break points, while Sabalenka had 13 break points but converted only four.