PARIS -- Her legs were cramping so badly, she was having difficulty even walking. But Karolina Muchova, even on the very brink of defeat, refused to give in.
Down 5-2 and love-30 in the third set of her Roland Garros semifinal against Aryna Sabalenka, Muchova rallied famously. She saved a match point and, in the end, won the last five games -- and 20 of the final 24 points -- to escape with a spectacular 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-5 victory in 3 hours, 13 minutes.
And while the postmortems invariably focused on Sabalenka’s collapse, make no mistake -- Muchova was hardly a passive participant in this drama. She returned big serves artfully, hit some winners and, in the last game, a critical drop shot. No, she seized this day and the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic is into her first Grand Slam singles final.
French Open semifinals
- Swiatek stops Haddad Maia to reach third Roland Garros final
- Muchova upsets Sabalenka at French Open; makes first Grand Slam final
The reward for her diligence? A tantalizing Saturday date (3 p.m. Paris time, 9 a.m. ET) with World No.1 Iga Swiatek, a 6-2, 7-6 (7) winner over Beatriz Haddad Maia.
Who will reign supreme? WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen and Greg Garber hash it out.
The numbers keep racking up for Swiatek.
She is now 25-2 at the Grand Slams since becoming World No.1. Her 25th win, a gutsy 6-2, 7-6(6) win over Beatriz Haddad Maia in the semifinals, boosted her into her third Roland Garros final and ensured her she will leave Paris with her No.1 ranking intact.
Swiatek is now the youngest woman to reach three French Open finals since Monica Seles from 1990-1992. Only Chris Evert has made more than three Roland Garros finals in her first five appearances in the Open Era. She is also the youngest to make nine clay-court finals since Martina Hingis in 1999.
One way to look at the litany of statistics that put Swiatek in the history books alongside the game's greats is as a sign of her growing domination in Paris. But for the purposes of Saturday's final, I see them as proof of the experience gap between her and the first-time Grand Slam finalist Muchova.
Swiatek knows what it's like to wake up and make her way to Roland Garros to prepare for one of the biggest matches of her career. She's familiar with the butterflies that flutter about in the stadium tunnel before the walkout. She knows what it's like to be the underdog in a major final. She also knows what it's like to be the heavy favorite.
The next 48 hours are uncharted waters for the Czech. Haddad Maia, who was making her Slam semifinal debut, felt Swiatek handled the pressure moments better, while she struggled to control her emotions and play disciplined tennis.
"I think everybody who plays [against] top players as her, we have the mentality that we need to go for it, we need big courage, we need to be aggressive, because otherwise she's gonna come," Haddad Maia said after her semifinal loss. "Mentally, she's in another level from the other players."
Twelve months ago, Swiatek showed just how much experience matters when she picked apart Coco Gauff in a 6-1, 6-3 clinic in the final. This year, not even the prospect of losing her No.1 ranking to Aryna Sabalenka seemed to put her off. As in her initial run to the title in 2020, Swiatek has not lost a set during the fortnight. Only one player, Haddad Maia, was able to take more than four games from her in a single set.
Sure, Muchova may have a win over Swiatek -- on clay, no less. But as Swiatek said, that was back when the future World No.1 was a rookie on tour. Ranked No.96 at the time, Swiatek was still trying to figure out if she even belonged. Playing her second match of the day, Swiatek wilted after taking the first set.
So no, I don't read too much into that result. Both Swiatek and Muchova are vastly different players four years on. Tennis players live in the present, and right now, Iga Swiatek is the World No.1 and title favorite for a reason. -- Courtney Nguyen
Numbers, in or out of context, can be a slippery slope. But here are the best ones I’ve seen regarding this final:
Muchova has never been ranked higher than No.19 among Hologic WTA Tour players, but undeniably she possesses the rare clutch gene. Five times she’s faced a player ranked in the Top 3 -- and five times she’s won.
It started with Karolina Pliskova four years ago at Wimbledon -- it was a ridiculous 13-11 in the third set. Two years later, she prevailed over Ashleigh Barty at the Australian Open and Naomi Osaka in Madrid, both times in three sets. Last year, she beat Maria Sakkarki at Roland Garros, winning a pair of tiebreakers. And now Sabalenka in memorable fashion.
Are you sensing a pattern, Courtney?
“It’s maybe my game and the fighting spirit and everything together,” Muchova said when a reporter relayed that information. “Today, it was hell of a fight, and I put everything out there. It paid off. That might be, yeah, that might be why.”
Swiatek, of course, fits that Top 3 profile. And, get this, Muchova has a 1-0 head-to-head edge here, going back to their Round of 32 match four years ago in Prague. She came back to win 4-6, 6-1, 6-4. Of course she did.
This was supposed to be a winner-take-all matchup for the No.1 ranking and a major title. But Muchova played a nearly technically perfect match against the No.2-ranked Sabalenka.
The good news for Muchova was that, other than muscle cramps, there didn’t seem to be anything else seriously wrong. She’ll have 45 hours to recover, which should be plenty of time. Her mind, contemplating her first major title, will be sharp.
🖌️ Coming from 2-5 down in the deciding set— wta (@WTA) June 8, 2023
🖌️ Saving match point
🖌️ Reaching her first Slam final after 3h13m
🖌️ Becoming the first player to defeat Sabalenka at a major this year
Muchova's Slav EPIC 🖼️@karomuchova7 | #RolandGarrospic.twitter.com/sVBDxw3ZpU
This has been a run reminiscent of fellow Czech Republic player Barbora Krejcikova, who won the title here two years ago. When a reporter doubled back on that arresting 5-0 record against Top 3 players and suggested Muchova would be the favorite, she shook her head.
“I don’t think I will be the favorite,” she said. “Yeah, it’s nice. I didn’t really even know about this statistic, if I say like that. It just shows me that I can play against them. 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 boost my confidence.” -- Greg Garber