Novak Djokovic makes history with dramatic comebacks at 2021 French Open

In the women’s singles draw, Barbora Krejcikova checkmated the field.

With 19 Grand Slam titles, Novak Djokovic moved closer to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, who share the record of 20.   -  Getty Images

It is difficulties that show who men are.” – Epictetus.

“Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths. When you go through hardships and decide not to surrender, that is strength.” – Mahatma Gandhi.

Novak Djokovic knows adversity. As a boy in 1999, he endured daily NATO bombings in shelters near his Belgrade home. When the alarms stopped and it was safe, he raced through the streets to practise at indoor courts. During those traumatic times, his father Srdjan once gathered him and his two younger brothers and slammed a 10 Deutschmarks bill on the kitchen table and said, “This is all we have. And more than ever, we have to stick together and figure out a way to get through this.” That background helps explain Djokovic’s mental toughness as well as his burning ambition to bring tennis glory not only to himself and his devoted family, but to his beloved homeland.

The 34-year-old Serb figured out ways to survive a series of crises at the French Open where he captured his 19th Grand Slam title. The first crisis came against Lorenzo Musetti in the fourth round. After dropping two tiebreakers, Djokovic throttled the flashy Italian teenager, 6-7, 6-7, 6-1, 6-0, 4-0, forcing him to retire from back pain and cramps. Dismissing their 15-year age gap, he said, “I like to play young guys in best-of-five [sets], because I feel even if they are leading a set or two sets to love, as was the case today, I still like my chances because I’m physically fit and I know how to wear my opponent down.”

RELATED| Random thoughts for tennis coaches and players

Another Italian, Matteo Berrettini, posed different problems for Djokovic. At a rugged 6’5” and 200 pounds, the ninth-seeded Berrettini pounded 130 mph serves and devastating forehands. He had another advantage, more off days than Djokovic, because Roger Federer controversially withdrew from his fourth-round match against Berrettini to practise on grass for Wimbledon. Spotting the Italian a mere nine years, Djokovic used his superior all-court game, speed and experience to prevail 6-3, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5.

The victory set up the showdown everyone wanted: No. 1 Djokovic against 13-time and defending champion Rafael Nadal. The King of Clay vs the only active player ever to defeat him at Roland Garros. (In 2009, Robin Soderling dealt Nadal the only other loss marring his astounding, near-perfect 105-2 record in Paris.)

The stakes could hardly have been higher in their semifinal and 58th career clash. With 18 Grand Slam titles, Djokovic needed a victory to move closer to Nadal and Federer, who shared the record of 20. A triumph for Nadal would not only stall the surging Djokovic, winner of six of the past 10 majors, but also give Nadal a chance to pull ahead of Federer and claim GOAT status, at least for now. Whatever the semifinal outcome, the winner would face a formidable foe in the final.

RELATED| The modern forehand and how Federer and Nadal use it

But why wasn’t this blockbuster match between two living legends taking place in the final? The short answer is that Nadal is ranked No. 3, and the luck of the draw placed Nadal and Djokovic in the same half of the draw — a sad fate that would never have happened if Nadal were ranked No. 2. However, the French Tennis Federation blunders every year by rigidly following the ATP rankings for seedings, rather than adjusting them based on a player’s results on clay. Even for a sport known for eating its own, this injustice was particularly destructive. The 1980s champion John McEnroe, now an NBC tennis analyst, called it “the dumbest decision ever made in the history of the sport.”

Nadal, the pre-tournament consensus favourite to capture a mind-boggling 14th French Open, arrived in Paris with momentum following titles in Barcelona and Rome. Capitalising on a relatively easy draw, he outclassed 18th-seeded Jannik Sinner, a hard-hitting but one-dimensional teenager, 7-5, 6-3, 6-0, in the fourth round. Then, he overpowered diminutive, 10th-seeded Diego Schwartzman 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.

Biggest challenge in tennis

Although Djokovic led their overall rivalry 29-28, Nadal had a telling 7-1 advantage at Roland Garros, including a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 drubbing of Djokovic in the final last October. In their most recent encounter, the Serb edged the Spaniard 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 in the Rome final. McEnroe called Nadal’s near-total domination at Roland Garros “the greatest single achievement in the history of any sport.” And Djokovic acknowledged that beating his arch-rival there is “the biggest challenge you can have in this sport,” even likening it to climbing Mt Everest.

Djokovic must have felt a sense of déjà vu from eight months ago when he failed to put away two overheads before Nadal belted a forehand winner to break serve for 2-0. The opportunistic Spaniard seized 12 of the next 15 points to streak ahead 5-0. The 5,000 spectators — the maximum allowed due to COVID-19 restrictions — certainly didn’t want a repeat of the disappointingly lopsided 2020 final.

Strangely enough, the turning point of the match came here. A more relaxed, confident Djokovic suddenly held his own in rallies and struck enough winners to take three straight games. Even though he dropped the set 6-3, he picked up critical momentum.

RELATED| Does Novak Djokovic have the perfect game?

The winner of the first set had taken their last 15 matches. But now Djokovic was punishing Nadal’s backhand and attacking short balls mercilessly. Nadal, who had won 35 straight matches at Roland Garros, looked beatable. Djokovic broke serve for 4-2 as both players mixed their shot speeds and spins beautifully. Then, combining artful defence with timely winners, he saved three break points to lead 5-2. Two games later, Djokovic escaped two more break points, the second on a forehand winner, to take the second set 6-3.

The final was the first at a Grand Slam for Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek had become the third-best clay-courter in the world and boasted the talent, technique and tactics to beat anyone on any surface.   -  Getty Images

 

Could Nadal reverse Djokovic’s momentum in the pivotal third set? Would this duel live up to the sky-high pre-match expectations?

Modern tennis has become extremely physical with gruelling baseline power rallies replacing the staccato serve-volley points of yesteryear. Add the magical artistry of these ageless warriors to that brute force and you have the makings of a classic. The third set provided exactly that.

With Djokovic increasingly dictating rallies, Nadal had to stave off two break points serving at 1-all. The first came on a forehand winner, and the second on an explosive forehand that forced an error. The slightly pro-Nadal but fickle crowd roared as their hero fought valiantly to keep up with Djokovic’s power and precision. It took three break points, but two games later, Djokovic broke serve for a 3-2 lead.

The best set of the year also featured the best game and best point of the year. Down break point, Djokovic ended a scintillating, “anything you can do, I can do better” 23-shot, power point with a forehand winner that even had McEnroe raving, “That’s got to be one of the greatest games ever played on this court.”

Nadal, the ultimate fighter, managed to break serve for 3-all when he whacked his incomparable forehand for another winner. As their terrific shots were somehow returned with even better ripostes, boisterous spectators, venting their emotions after a lost pandemic year, yelled louder and louder.

RELATED| Novak Djokovic stops the next generation again

‘We won’t leave!’

During the changeover with Nadal leading 6-5, the fans defiantly chanted “We won’t leave! We won’t leave!” in French. The thrilling match was fast approaching the 11 p.m. government curfew. To avoid a sit-in protest or even worse, the referee announced, “Due to the exceptional nature of the match,” the match would continue with spectators.

In the next game, Djojovic needed 10 points, the most crucial won by a sublime backhand drop shot on break point, to hold serve and force a tiebreaker.

While the Serb came through with two forehand crosscourt winners, a volley winner and an ace, the Spaniard faltered badly. Nadal started the tiebreaker with a double fault. He also netted a drop shot, blew an easy forehand volley and then lost the final point when Djokovic attacked a mediocre drop shot, forcing Nadal to miss a forehand. That gave Djokovic the tiebreaker 7-4.

“What’s truly amazing,” said McEnroe, “is that these guys might be better than they’ve ever been at age 35.”

When Nadal drew first blood with a service break to go ahead 1-0 in the fourth set and then held serve for 2-0, McEnroe’s assertion seemed accurate. But Djokovic’s relentlessly punishing shots had taken their toll. Nadal, who usually broke down opponents physically and mentally, was grimacing and limping slightly. He looked weary and dispirited.

RELATED| Can tennis's Next Gen take down Federer, Djokovic and Nadal?

Equally surprising, Nadal lost his next three service games. Meanwhile, the fresher Djokovic dropped only three points in his last three service games. The comeback had turned into a rout. Djokovic had won 24 of the last 31 points in his convincing 3-6, 6-3, 7-6, 6-2 triumph. The King of Clay was dethroned.

Past and present champions heaped superlatives about the four-hour, 11-minute duel. “You cannot play better clay-court tennis than this, it’s perfect,” Andy Murray wrote on social media, while Andy Roddick tweeted, “It’s one of the best matches I’ve ever seen.” Djokovic called it “definitely the best match I was ever a part of at Roland Garros.”

Although Novak Djokovic led their overall rivalry 29-28, Rafael Nadal had a telling 7-1 advantage at Roland Garros, including a 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 drubbing of Djokovic in the final last October.   -  Getty Images

 

For sustained brilliance, competitive balance and a dramatic ending, however, two marathon matches in their historic rivalry clearly surpassed this four-setter — the 2012 Australian Open final (Djokovic won 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5) and the 2013 French Open semifinal (Nadal won 6-4, 3-6, 6-1, 6-7, 9-7).

In the other half of the draw, a modern-day Greek athlete followed in the tireless footsteps of an ancient Greek. In 490 BC, the immortal Pheidippides ran 155 miles in 36 hours from Marathon to Athens to deliver news of the victory of the battle of Marathon.

Stefanos Tsitsipas already boasts two nicknames, “The Greek Freak” and “The Great Greek,” and, at 22, is just as determined to make history as Pheidippides and NBA superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo have.

Handsome, articulate and charismatic, Tsitsipas has been knocking at the door of greatness since he upset Roger Federer with his dynamic, all-court game at the 2019 Australian Open. The cognoscenti predicting tennis will never again see the likes of the supremely athletic and graceful Swiss may have to reconsider after watching Tsitsipas during the Paris fortnight.

RELATED| Everything you need to know about speed in tennis

The broad-shouldered, 6’4” Tsitsipas dropped only one set, against No. 31 rocket-server John Isner to reach the quarters. There he faced 2019 US Open and 2021 Australian Open finalist Daniil Medvedev, whose No. 2 ranking was misleading. Until this year, he’d never won a French Open match and had only five Masters 1000 wins on clay.

The quirky, 25-year-old Russian confided his tactics and shot selection were often faulty on clay. He proved it on match point. Hoping to surprise Tsitsipas, Medvedev foolishly served underhanded with little backspin and no sidespin, then rushed net. It backfired as Tsitsipas passed him with a nonchalant backhand down the line for a 6-3, 7-6, 7-5 victory.

Next Genners battle

In a semifinal battle of elite Next Genners, Tsitsipas took on No. 6 Alexander Zverev, the 2020 US Open runner-up. Though more accomplished on faster hard courts, Zverev captured the Madrid Masters three weeks earlier on clay, upsetting two-time Roland Garros finalist Dominic Thiem and Nadal. The rap against the 6’6” German was that during his six-year pro career, he had never beaten a top-10 player at a major.

The slightly favoured Tsitsipas, who had won their only previous clay encounter at the 2019 Madrid event, led the Tour with 23 match wins on clay and 39 total wins this season. With the confidence that comes from consistency, he easily raced ahead 6-3, 6-3 without facing a break point.

At 1-all in the third set, though, the Greek seemed to lose his concentration, committing four unforced errors to lose his serve. After the revitalised German routinely held serve for 3-1, he raised his arms, urging the pro-Tsitsipas crowd to support him. Blasting first serves an average of 136 mph and hitting his ground strokes with controlled aggression, Zverev grabbed the next two sets 6-4, 6-4 to turn the match into a toss-up.

Would Tsitsipas fold under pressure in the deciding set as compatriot Maria Sakkari did the day before in her semifinal? It sure looked like it when he double-faulted to trail love-40, triple break point, in the opening game. But there would be no Greek tragedy as he reeled off five straight points.

RELATED| Everything you need to know about balance in tennis

A service break gave Tsitsipas a 3-1 lead. In the eighth game, Zverev fashioned a Houdini-like escape of his own, staving off four match points with a body serve, a gutsy drop shot winner, a 134-mph ace and a wickedly swerving slice serve. Ahead 5-3, Tsitsipas emphatically closed it out on his fifth match point with an ace to become the first Greek to reach a major final.

In the on-court interview, he told the cheering crowd, “All I can think of is my roots” and thanked the Greek partisans for their support. Tsitsipas added, “This win is the most important of my career so far.”

Those last two words suggested there would be plenty more to come. Indeed, during the semifinal, NBC analyst Mary Carillo predicted, “Tsitsipas is going to win more Grand Slam than anybody”— meaning the Next Genners. “He has all the shots and terrific movement.”

Last October, Djokovic faced all that plus Tsitsipas’s resilience in their memorable French Open semifinal. Ahead 6-3, 6-2, 5-4, 40-30, Djoker failed to convert a match point, when he missed a backhand down the line. The Greek capitalised on that error and reversed the momentum to take the third and fourth sets before the Serb restored order to win the fifth set, 6-1. Recalling that match, Djokovic said, “We played an epic five-setter last year in the semis here, and I know it’s going to be another tough one.”

The final would prove even tougher. Though this was Djokovic’s 29th major final and only the first for Tsitsipas, the Greek had become the third-best clay-courter in the world and boasted the talent, technique and tactics to beat anyone on any surface. Even so, William Hill Sportsbook listed Djokovic as a heavy 1-3 betting favourite. The 12-year age gap, the sixth-largest in men’s Grand Slam history, was inconsequential because of the Serb’s renowned stamina.

Tsitsipas started the match with a nervous double fault, then saved two break points, and ended the long opening game with a statement: three booming aces. Down break point at 5-all, it was Djokovic’s turn to show his mettle. He won a brutal, 26-shot rally by forcing a Tsitsipas backhand error. He raised his fist to celebrate. “Djokovic is as close as you can be to a human backboard,” commented McEnroe. “He wears you down.”

Daniil Medvedev's No. 2 ranking was misleading. Until this year, he’d never won a French Open match and had only five Masters 1000 wins on clay.   -  AP

 

A tiebreaker climaxed the spectacular first set. Tsitsipas raced to a 4-0 before Djokovic rebounded with a nifty angle volley winner and a disguised drop shot that surprised Tsitsipas. Facing a set point at 5-6, the Greek boldly smacked a forehand winner. Many of the 5,000 fans chanted, “Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!” Their favourite responded with big forehands to grab the next two points and the tiebreaker 8-6.

The crowd briefly shifted its allegiance when Djokovic was down 4-2 and three break points in the second set. Chants of “Nole! Nole!” reverberated in Court Philippe-Chatrier. But they couldn’t buoy the struggling Serb. He lost the game and covered his downcast face with a towel during the changeover. Tsitsipas finished off the second set, 6-2, with his ninth ace.

Unbelievably, Djokovic had now lost five straight sets in French Open finals!

Daunting adversity

If his present adversity weren’t daunting enough, would the ghosts of losses past also haunt him? Often a huge win over Nadal so exhausts a player that he then loses. Indeed, Djokovic suffered that fate at the 2015 Roland Garros when he upset Nadal in the quarterfinals only to be upset himself by Stan Wawrinka in the final.

Djokovic finally found a higher gear in the third set. In a wildly fluctuating, 18-point game with Tsitsipas serving at 1-2, the Greek had three game points and the Serb five break points. Tsitsipas saved the first break point with a terrific forehand passing shots. But Djokovic dug deep, and Tsitsipas’s backhand faltered on the last break point. With a service break and a 3-1 lead, Djokovic had the volte-face he needed. With that momentum, he took the third set 6-3 and the fourth set 6-2.

RELATED| Reasons to use side spin in tennis

No man had ever come back twice from two sets down to win a major in the Open Era, but the Paris crowd appreciated his fighting spirit, and some yelled “Nole! Nole!” in the critical opening game. Djokovic had a break point but could only watch helplessly as Tsitsipas wrong-footed him with a forehand winner.

In a duel filled with brilliant shots, two of the best came on a pivotal point — at 1-all, 15-all. A long, hard-hitting rally suddenly changed tactically when Tsitsipas conjured a wicked forehand drop shot with a dollop of sidespin. Sprinting furiously to reach the ball and stretching agilely to line it up, Djokovic executed an extreme backhand angle that flew parallel to and near the net. The scrambling Tsitsipas slid on the clay ending up outside the alley, where he barely reached it and erred.

How does Djokovic do it? His dedication to fitness knows no bounds. When his wife Jelena was once asked what life was really like away from the tennis tour, she answered, “Life is about stretching. I always find him on the floor, legs all over the place. He stretches four times a day.”

A few points later on another break point, Tsitsipas couldn’t match that flexibility when a deep Djokovic forehand trapped him in no-man’s land. His improvised backhand half volley sailed deep. That service break extended the Serb’s lead to 3-1.

With Djokovic serving for the championship at 5-4, 40-30, Tsitsipas boldly bashed a forehand winner down the line. His never-say-die supporters yelled, “Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!” But Djokovic ruthlessly finished off the contender with a forehand winner and a routine high volley putaway.

Game, set and 19th major title Djokovic 6-7, 6-2, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4.

RELATED| Why rhythm is important in tennis

“It was a big fight out there, I tried my best and did as much as I could,” a heartbroken but gracious Tsitsipas told the crowd. “Let’s give it up for Novak because he has shown us in the last couple of years what a great champion he is, how consistent he has been.”

Djokovic generously complimented the rising star. “I can relate to what he’s going through, and I understand how difficult it is to lose in the final. These are the kind of matches you learn from most and knowing him and his team, he will come out much stronger. I definitely believe he’ll win many Grand Slams in the future.”

In the near future, Djokovic had more record-breaking history on his mind. Halfway to the Grand Slam — winning all four majors in a calendar year — the champ could also capture an Olympic gold medal, the only prestigious title to have eluded him.

“I can say that what I’ve been through in my career, in my life, this journey has been terrific so far,” he said. “I’ve achieved some things that a lot of people thought it would be not possible for me to achieve. Everything is possible, and I did put myself in a good position to go for the Golden Slam.”

For tennis lovers who debate which Big Three superstar deserves “the greatest of all time” (GOAT) accolade, Wimbledon presents a once-unimaginable scenario. If the rampaging Serb wins his sixth crown on July 11, Djokovic, Federer and Nadal, a trio of living legends, will all own 20 Grand Slam titles.

RELATED| Life without tennis during a pandemic

Krejcikova checkmates the field

It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela.

Losses have propelled me to even bigger places, so I understand the importance of losing.” – Venus Williams.

Barbora who? Unless you’re a hardcore tennis fan, the French Open was mystifying.

Just when everyone thought women’s tennis couldn’t get any more unpredictable, it did. Four players reached their first major semifinal at Roland Garros, a first in the Open Era. Only one top-15 player made the quarterfinals. And, for the ultimate shocker, an unseeded player outlasted the 31st seeded player in the final.

No-name players kept upsetting big names. And when they didn’t, the big names simply withdrew from the tournament. Most notably, world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the champion here two years ago, retired from her second-round match with a painful hip injury. No. 2 Naomi Osaka created a controversy but also a much-needed discussion about mental health when she abruptly withdrew after winning one round, revealing on social media she experiences “huge waves of anxiety” before talking to reporters and has suffered from “long bouts of depression.” Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady also retired due to a foot injury against Coco Gauff in the third round. And No. 11 Petra Kvitova, after winning her first match, fell and injured her ankle in a freak accident during a media session, forcing her to withdraw.

RELATED| Paul Fein: 10 tennis things you can do during the coronavirus crisis

When the carnage of pre-tournament favourites and lesser seeds ended, the last two women standing were Barbora Krejcikova, a doubles standout, and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, an underachieving veteran whose career-high No. 13 ranking came a decade ago. Not exactly household names.

Even so, the long-shot odds of 125-1 for Krejcikova and 250-1 for Pavlyuchenkova seemed excessive given their recent results on clay. Krejcikova captured her first singles title at Strasbourg and upset 2020 Roland Garros runner-up Sofia Kenin at Rome. Pavlyuchenkova reached the Madrid Open semifinals with big wins over No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, Australian Open semifinalist Karolina Muchova and Brady.

That momentum proved even more important for Krejcikova, who arrived in Paris with an 11-match winning streak, considering that only eight months ago she ranked a lowly No. 114. Her dossier was highlighted by 2018 Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles titles with her long-time partner Katerina Siniakova, a No. 1 doubles ranking and three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles. Despite her all-court game, the 25-year-old had Czech floundered for years in singles, losing 15 straight times in the qualifying event at the majors. In fact, Roland Garros marked only her fifth main-draw major appearance.

Barbora Krejcikova's momentum proved important for her. She arrived in Paris with an 11-match winning streak, after ranking a lowly No. 114 only eight months ago. Her dossier was highlighted by 2018 Wimbledon and Roland Garros doubles titles with her long-time partner Katerina Siniakova, a No. 1 doubles ranking and three Grand Slam mixed doubles titles.   -  AFP

 

This fortnight, though, Krejcikova served notice early that she would be a factor in singles when she outclassed 32nd-seeded Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-3 and fifth-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-3, 6-2. But without a deep reservoir of confidence, the Czech became stressed before playing Sloane Stephens, fearing she would embarrass herself against the 2018 Roland Garros finalist. She locked herself in a room and cried. A talk with her psychologist reassured her she would overcome her anxiety, and she overwhelmed Stevens 6-2, 6-0 to reach the quarterfinals.

There, in an intriguing match-up, she faced Gauff. The 17-year-old American prodigy became the youngest woman to reach a major quarterfinal since Nicole Vaidisova at the 2006 French Open and the youngest American to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Venus Williams at the 1997 US Open. Gauff, whose resume already included wins over Osaka, Barty and No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka, was also on a clay-court roll after making the Rome semifinals and winning Parma.

Could Gauff, who combined shot power and running speed in the mould of Serena Williams, match Serena’s feat of winning her first major at 17 at the 1998 US Open? Or would the burden of great expectations prove too heavy?

RELATED| Things to remember about Maria Sharapova

Serving for the set at 5-3, Gauff had a set point at 40-30. But her youth and inexperience showed when she made an unforced forehand error, a double fault and an unforced backhand error. The poised Krejcikova saved four more set points and took the crucial tiebreaker, 8-6. Trailing 4-0 in the second set, the American smashed her racket on the red clay in frustration. To her credit, Gauff, down 5-1, 40-love, fought back and fended off three match points. It took the Czech three more match points when serving at 5-3 before a Gauff forehand error in the alley sealed the 7-6, 6-3 verdict.

Disappointed by the defeat but encouraged by what it taught her, Gauff said, “After the match, Enzo [Wallart], my hitting partner, told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that.”

New perspective

Like many others on the pro tours, Krejcikova gained a new perspective on tennis and life during the five-month pandemic break in 2020. She explained how that hiatus lessened the pressure of winning. “Just seeing that there are also other things in the world that actually are happening, are just tougher and more difficult than just me playing tennis and losing, or me just playing tennis,” she said. “I go and I play tennis and I lose, but there are actually people that are losing their lives. I just felt more like, ‘Well, just relax because you are healthy. Just appreciate this and just enjoy the game.’”

In the semifinals, Krejcikova confronted another 25-year-old giant-killer in Maria Sakkari, who had routed No. 4 Kenin 6-1, 6-3 and ousted defending champion Iga Swiatek 6-4, 6-4. Though overshadowed in Greece by Tsitsipas, she had improved her year-end ranking eight straight times. No wonder. Dedication personified, 17th-seeded Sakkari looks like the fittest woman on tour with muscular legs and arms and a lithe torso. With Spartan blood running through her veins, she exemplifies that warrior spirit. “I give my heart and everything until the very last point,” she said. “I’m a fighter.”

RELATED| A letter to lefties

The first Greek woman to reach a major semifinal would need every ounce of blood against the equally competitive Czech. The intense Sakkari, grunting loudly with each shot, led 5-3 in the deciding set with a match point on Krejcikova’s serve. The stoical Czech abandoned her relentlessly steady game and dictated with penetrating ground strokes. Then she raced to net to put away a floater with a powerful swinging backhand crosscourt volley. Match point averted!

Serving at 6-7, it was Sakkari’s turn to avert defeat. She escaped three match points, the last two on a backhand winner and an ace. As the drama heightened, pro-Sakkari fans chanted her name louder and louder.

Krejcikova’s fourth match point illustrated a needless policy blunder at Roland Garros — not using Hawk-Eye line-calling technology as the other majors do. She saw Sakkari’s forehand land about an inch behind the baseline and raised her arms in a victory gesture. The umpire jumped off the chair, and pointed to the baseline where he wrongly thought the ball landed. The Czech was robbed. The point had to be replayed. Hawk-Eye showed the ball was 19 millimetres out.

As former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst, said, “That [serious mistake] should not happen in this day and age.” TennisNow’s Richard Pagliaro put the travesty of justice best: “The [umpire’s] over-rule highlights the insanity of Roland Garros having Hawk-Eye on site for TV networks to use yet not actually using modern line-calling technology.”

RELATED| Heart health for tennis players

Wisely taking the “Don’t get mad, get even” approach, Krejcikova continued to play rock-solid ground strokes. Four points later, when Sakkari resorted to a risky drop shot, Krejcikova finished her off with a backhand winner. “Krejcikova could be the strongest mentally tough player I’ve ever witnessed,” Davenport said.

Sometimes taking one’s eye off the ball and looking at the elegant, silver Coupe Suzanne Lenglen placed nearby can lead to disaster. “I have to be deadly honest: I got stressed, starting thinking that I'm a point away from being in the final,” Sakkari admitted afterwards. “I guess it’s a rookie mistake. Good thing is that if I give myself a chance again to be in that position, then I know that I don’t have to do it again.”

The gruelling 7-5, 4-6, 9-7 triumph took three hours and 18 minutes, and the marathon match pointed out yet another rule blunder by the obdurate French Tennis Federation — not using a tiebreaker to conclude deciding sets. It senseless enough in women’s matches, but it’s downright dangerous in the fifth set of men’s matches that could last five or even six hours.

Victory dedicated to Novotna

Krejcikova dedicated the victory to another Czech, Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champion with whom she stayed when Novotna died from cancer in November 2017, at only 49 years of age. This poignant story began in 2014 when the 18-year-old Krejcikova learned Novotna, who also won 16 majors in doubles and mixed doubles, had moved to her hometown of Brno. She worked up the nerve to go with her parents to Novotna’s house to seek advice.

When they hit some balls, Novotna liked what she saw. The former champion and aspiring junior star, who also excelled in doubles, became good friends. In press conferences during the fortnight, Krejcikova credited Novotna for her success.

When Novotna’s health ebbed in the fall of 2017, Krejcikova stayed with her until she died, despite her parents’ misgivings. “I realised that at the end of her life, I had to be with her and support her,” she recalled in an interview with Blest, the biggest Czech newspaper. “I felt that if I managed all this, I would gain a new perspective on the world and I would appreciate life and health more. I think she was happy to be with me. That’s why she’s watching me from above now, that’s why I have so many Grand Slam titles. She wants me to win. She knows what it means to me, and I know what this triumph would mean to her.”

RELATED| What are the right criteria to pick the tennis GOAT?

Pavlyuchenkova’s journey is a similar study in perseverance. The 29-year-old Russian ranked in the top 50 for 13 straight years, but never cracked the top 10 despite boasting the most wins ever, 37, over top-10 opponents of anyone ranked outside the top 10. Pavlyuchenkova owned another dubious distinction: she never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in majors until her 52nd appearance, at this French Open where she made the final, another record.

“I’ve always had the game, but not the mental game,” she explained. She recently hired a sports psychologist and said, “Already I feel like it's starting to pay off.” In truth, she also hurt her cause by being about 20 pounds overweight for much of her career. Though Pavlyuchenkova said she’d worked on her fitness, she still looked too heavy, which clearly reduced her stamina and speed.

Runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was an underachieving veteran whose career-high No. 13 ranking came a decade ago.   -  Getty Images

 

Pavlyuchenkova comes from a family of athletes. Her father Sergey was an Olympic canoeist who missed the 1980 Games due to a boycott, her mother Marina was a top swimmer and her grandmother played basketball for the USSR national team. Her brother Aleksandr has coached her at times during her pro career, including this French Open.

Aleksandr both calms her and tells her the truth about her game, which she has called both an advantage and disadvantage. That support paid off during the fortnight where Pavlyuchenkova was sternly tested by three hard-hitters in the middle rounds. She upset Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 and followed it up with a 5-7, 6-3, 6-2 victory over two-time major champion Victoria Azarenka. Her closest call came against Elena Rybakina, her close friend and Roland Garros doubles partner, in her 6-7, 6-2, 9-7 quarterfinal win.

For her part, in the fourth round, the big-serving, 21st-seeded Rybakina kept her nerves under control and committed only 13 unforced errors to knock out Serena 6-3, 7-5. Competing in only her seventh main draw at a major, the broad-shouldered 21-year-old from Kazakhstan notched first- and second-serve average speeds faster than Serena’s, another sign of the 39-year-old champion’s decline.

RELATED| The origin of tennis: History, mystery and myths

The biggest shock semifinalist was No. 85-ranked Tamara Zidanek. Before the French Open, she had no main draw wins in Paris and an abysmal 3-5 match record in Grand Slam main draws. Her success in Paris catapulted her to becoming the third most-famous athlete in Slovenia behind Luka Doncic and Tina Maze.

Despite Zidanek’s 5’5” stature, her forehand averaged a blazing 78 mph, second only to Rafael Nadal among the eight semifinalists. She played her best tennis on the big points and capitalised on an easy draw, upsetting an out-of-form, sixth-seeded Bianca Andreescu 6-7, 7-6, 9-7 in the first round. Then blasting 48 winners, Zidanek overpowered and outlasted 33rd-seeded Paula Badosa 7-5, 4-6, 8-6 to reach her first major semifinal.

Laughter and positivity

Besides her potent forehand, improved backhand, disguised drop shot, occasional net rushes and serving variety, the key to 23-year-old Zidanek’s breakthrough at Roland Garros was the laughter and positivity of her team. Her eight-year coach, Marjan Cuk, amused reporters with this explanation: “Our job as a coach or mental coach or physical coach is to be relaxed, to show her it’s fun. This is the best thing that we give to her and what she takes. Tennis is so important, but it’s not the only way, you know? We must spend the whole day. How to do it? Just to talk about tennis? You get tense then. So there are many things. We are mostly very positive. We enjoy every moment of life. Why not? We are not turtles that we live 220 years. Let’s enjoy it, c’mon.”

Alas, the Slovenian’s fun run ended when Pavlyuchenkova beat her 7-5, 6-3. The more experienced Russian had too much power and precision for the speedy but outgunned upstart. She especially punished Zidanek’s second serve and won 62 percent (10/16) of those points.

In a throwback to a bygone era at Grand Slam events, both singles finalists entered the doubles, risking injury and exhaustion. The unseeded Pavluchenkova and Rybakina reached the quarterfinals, while the second-seeded Krejcikova and Siniakova captured their third major title. It also gave the versatile Krejcikova the first French Open “double” since Mary Pierce achieved the feat in 2000.

RELATED| Tennis's Big Three and the Next Gen

Parity has become so pronounced in women’s tennis — except for Osaka’s dominance at hard court majors — that for the sixth straight year, the French Open singles champion would claim her first Grand Slam title. Equally amazing, the champion would become the 13th different woman to hoist the trophy at the last 17 Grand Slam events.

Krejcikova’s road to glory was smoothed by another chat with her psychologist to reassure her that she wouldn’t panic in the biggest match of her career. She was also inspired by the last words of her beloved mentor Jana Novotna, whom she said she thinks about every match she plays: “Just enjoy, just try to win a Grand Slam.”

Even with those good vibes, Krejcikova nervously double-faulted twice and quickly lost the opening game. Perhaps Payluchenkova felt even more pressure, knowing that at 29, she might not reach another Grand Slam final. The Russian lost her first three service games and quickly dropped the opening set, 6-1. It’s a good thing that she likely didn’t know the Czech, a strong frontrunner, boasted a 20-1 record after winning the first set this year.

Pavlyuchenkova said she learned a lot about adversity and perseverance from reading her favourite book, Eat, Pray, Love. She found herself in more adversity down a break point in the opening game of the second set. She escaped with a swinging forehand volley winner and held serve for a 1-0 lead. Pumped up and playing with confidence and belief, she belted a forehand winner to break for 2-0. A big service return produced another service break to make it 5-1 for the Russian. “Pavlyuchenkova has started to relax and make this more about the match and not the occasion, which sometimes can be hard to do,” said Davenport.

RELATED| It’s Ashleigh Barty’s party

But Krejcikova fought back. At 5-1, 40-all on Pavlyuchenkova service, the Czech boldly smacked a backhand winner and a forehand approach winner to narrow the gap to 5-2. Pavlyuchenkova then took an eight-minute medical timeout, and the trainer massaged and wrapped her left leg. The Russian didn’t appear impeded as she quickly broke back with a winner produced by her picture-perfect backhand to seize the second set 6-2.

What the final lacked in superstar greatness, or even top-10 excellence, it offered in closeness and unpredictability in the deciding set. Pavlyuchenkova held the edge in (classic) technique and big-match singles experience, while Krejcikova had superior speed, stamina and tactics, especially her change of pace shots.

After exchanging service breaks early, the Czech played a splendid game at 3-all. With the Russian down love-30, Krejcikova drilled a backhand winner down the line and a crosscourt forehand winner to grab a 4-3 lead and the only service break she needed.

Pavlyuchenkova fought off two championship points to narrow the lead to 5-4. But then Krejcikova closed the deal with only a slight hiccup. At 30-15, she hit another forehand crosscourt winner, double-faulted and then watched the Russian’s forehand land just beyond the baseline. Game, set and title, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4, for the 125-1 long-shot everyone overlooked.

Dedication personified, 17th-seeded Maria Sakkari looks like the fittest woman on tour with muscular legs and arms and a lithe torso. With Spartan blood running through her veins, she exemplifies that warrior spirit.   -  Getty Images

 

The surprise champion looked toward the heavens and blew a kiss to the friend who had faith she would win a Grand Slam someday. Krejcikova thus entered the pantheon of Czech major singles champions, including Novotna, Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, Hana Mandlikova and Jaroslav Drobny.

“It’s something I’ve always dreamed about,” she said. “Winning here my first Grand Slam doubles title [in 2018], then winning the mixed ones. Now, I was just telling myself it would be really nice if I could get a grand slam in all three categories. I cannot believe it, now it’s happening. Wow.”

Don’t expect Bára, as she is called back home in Brno, to turn into a diva. She’s a normal girl who likes to embroider, play with her pet Teddy and garden at her parents’ home.

Whenever she can, she helps small children with their games at the Ivančice tennis club. “I enjoy it there. I like to spend time among normal people who love you,” she told Blest.

Most of all, she loves her family. “Mom and Dad, two brothers. I’m an aunt, I have a nephew and a niece. I spend a lot of time with them.”

For more updates, follow Sportstar on :