Inspired by Novotna, Krejcikova wins 1st Slam title in Paris

AP General

Czech Republic’s Barbora Krejcikova slams a forehand to Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova during their final match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium Saturday, June 12, 2021 in Paris. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)

PARIS (AP) — Thinking of her late coach the whole time, Barbora Krejcikova went from unseeded player to Grand Slam champion at a French Open full of surprises.

Krejcikova beat 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the final at Roland Garros on Saturday to win the title in just her fifth major tournament as a singles player.

“It’s big achievement that nobody really expected,” said Krejickova, a 25-year-old from the Czech Republic who never won a WTA title of any sort until last month. “Not even me.”

When it ended with Pavlyuchenkova’s backhand landing long on Krejcikova’s fourth match point, they met at the net for a hug. Then Krejcikova blew kisses, her eyes squeezed shut, in tribute to her former coach, Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champion who died of cancer at age 49 in 2017.

“Pretty much her last words were just enjoy and just try to win a Grand Slam. And, I mean, I know that, from somewhere, she’s looking after me,” Krejcikova told the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier, limited to 5,000 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“All of this that just happened, these two weeks, is pretty much because she is just looking after me from up there,” Krejcikova said, lifting her left hand toward the sky. “It was amazing that I had a chance to meet her and that she was such an inspiration for me. I just really miss her. But I hope she’s happy right now. I’m extremely happy.”

Krejcikova is the third unseeded women’s champion since 2017 at Roland Garros. There were zero from 1968 through 2016.

She now will try to become the first woman since Mary Pierce in 2000 to win the French Open singles and doubles titles in the same year. Krejcikova and partner Katerina Siniakova already own two Grand Slam doubles titles and reached Sunday’s final of that event.

Pavlyuchenkova, a 29-year-old Russian, was playing in her first Grand Slam final in the 52nd major tournament of her career — the most appearances by a woman before reaching a title match.

“Who could have thought, like, I would be in the final now? I think I’m just going to keep on going the same, zero expectation, just working hard and doing my job,” said Pavlyuchenkova, who was treated for a left leg problem late in the second set that she revealed afterward arose during her third-round victory over No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka.

“OK, of course,” Pavlyuchenkova said, “I believe in myself a little bit more maybe, yes.”

Same for Krejcikova, who spoke frankly about feeling overwhelmed by stress before facing 2017 U.S. Open champion Sloane Stephens in the fourth round. Krejcikova worried she wouldn’t win a game and was in tears until her sports psychologist talked her through it.

Good thing, too, because Krejcikova beat Stephens 6-2, 6-0. That went alongside wins over No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina and No. 24 Coco Gauff before Krejcikova saved a match point in the semifinals against No. 17 Maria Sakkari.

Now Krejcikova is the sixth consecutive first-time Grand Slam champion to collect the women’s championship at Roland Garros, where the red clay can frustrate players by diminishing the effectiveness of speedy serves and by creating odd bounces.

Saturday’s matchup was a fitting conclusion to a tournament filled with success for new names, including a record six first-time major quarterfinalists.

Naomi Osaka withdrew to take a mental health break. No. 1 Ash Barty, the 2019 champion, retired in the second round with an injured left hip. Simona Halep, the 2018 champion, didn’t play at all because of a hurt calf. Serena Williams lost in the fourth round. Defending champion Iga Swiatek lost in the quarterfinals.

Some jitters were apparent in the final’s opening game, when Krejcikova double-faulted twice. But she snapped out of it, excelling with her crisp two-handed backhand, net skills honed in doubles and perfect defensive lobs. One curled over Pavlyuchenkova and landed at a corner to help Krejcikova begin a six-game run in the first set.

Pavlyuchenkova went up 5-1 in the second, before she stretched for a backhand, winced and reached for her upper left leg. During a medical timeout, a trainer taped that leg while Pavlyuchenkova was on a towel, a bag of candy within reach.

In the third set, Krejcikova nosed ahead for good at 4-3 by breaking at love with a forehand winner.

Soon enough, she was being handed the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen by 18-time major champion Martina Navratilova and gently rocking the trophy during the Czech national anthem.

Novotna was on Krejcikova’s mind.

“We just had a really special bond,” Krejcikova said. “She wants me to win. She knows what it means to me, and I know what it would mean to her.”

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AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich in Washington contributed to this report.

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