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When Roland Garros began, five of the past six champions were in the field. Only one of them, 2020 champion Iga Swiatek, made it past the fourth round, losing in the quarter-finals.

For a variety of reasons, seeds No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Aryna Sabalenka were only able to win a combined total of four matches.

By the semi-finals, the highest-ranked player remaining was No. 18 Maria Sakkari, but she was beaten in a classic, three-set cliff-hanger by No. 33-ranked Barbora Krejcikova.

After all the surprises and tumult, Roland Garros now comes down to two players located right next to each other in rankings, No. 32 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs No. 33 Krejcikova.

  • INSIGHTS gives Krejcikova the higher odds of winning her first Grand Slam title at 60% to Pavlyuchenkova’s 40%.

Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s final:

No. 31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs unseeded No. 33 Barbora Krejcikova

How do you hide a talent like Krejcikova in plain sight?

The 25-year-old Czech has played doubles Grand Slams, winning two of them, but Roland Garros is only her fifth major singles appearance. Entering the event she was 2/2 at the Australian Open, 2/2 at Roland Garros and 0/0 at both Wimbledon and the US Open.

She has been a presence at the biggest events but mostly in doubles where she reached No. 1 in the rankings and won Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2018 with countrywoman Katerina Sinakova.

On practice courts and at tournaments all over the world, didn’t people see this fine athlete with heavy balls and has all the shots (including excellent moonballs), and not imagine a career for her in singles?

Krejcikova has talked about how playing at home last summer during the pandemic in organized competitions against her compatriots (there are 10 Czech women in the Top 100) helped give her confidence in her singles.

Roland Garros last October was a key moment for her: she reached the round of 16 before losing to eventual semi-finalist Nadia Podoroska. The 240 WTA ranking points she earned moved her No. 131 ranking inside the Top 100 for the first time to No. 85. Since then she jumped from No. 63 to inside of the Top 40 by reaching the WTA 1000 final in Dubai.

In terms of actual matches that signaled what a legitimate singles talent Krejcikova is, the key was a 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-5 loss to Swiatek in the round of 16 in Rome last month. Krejcikova has not lost a match since, winning five to capture her first singles title in Strasbourg and then six more to earn a spot in Saturday’s final against Pavlyuchenkova.

While Krejcikova just managed to crack the Top 100 in the last eight months, the 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova has been resident there for 13 years. In fact, she has never had a year-end ranking worse than No. 45 since 2008. Most people Pavlyuchenkova had a brilliant junior career with a world No. 1 ranking in 2006 at 15, but she hadn’t translated that into real success at the very highest level of the pro tour.

Though a 12-time WTA singles champion, there have been periods of definite stagnation in her progress, evidenced in her year-end rankings from 2013 to 2016 when she was 22 to 25 years old. She showed both consistency and stagnation in those four years: No. 26 (2013), No. 25 (2014), No. 28 (2015) and No. 28 (2018). Since then her year-end ranking has had a more normal variation from No. 15 in 2017 to a finish at No. 38 in 2020.

Her unexpected run to the Roland Garros final has moved her current No. 32 up to a projected No. 18, and a victory in the final would take her to No. 14 – one away from her career-best of No. 13 achieved in 2011.

Pavlyuchenkova had the much less complicated Roland Garros semi-final, dispatching No. 85-ranked Tamara Zidansek 7-5, 6-3. Ultimately, the 23-year-old Slovenian struggled to challenge the Russian, and Pavlyuchenkova’s superior pedigree and more consistent game was just a step too far.

There was no such separation in the second semi-final. Against Sakkari, Krejicokova saved a match point while trailing 5-3 in the final set and then rallied and managed to finish off the match on her fifth match point to win 7-5, 4-6, 9-7. After three hours and 18 minutes, Krejcikova won by the tiniest margin with her superior composure in the final moments. It was fitting that the last point was won by a winner: a backhand down-the-line after Sakkari had played an ill-advised drop shot.

“I always wanted to play matches like this,” Krejcikova said. “I always wanted to play tournaments like this, big tournaments, big opponents, last rounds. It was just taking so long. It just took me some time, but I think right now it’s actually right moment, especially mentally I think I’m just there. I really matured. I just really appreciate things a lot, especially after what I’ve gone through, also with this pandemic and everything.”

One individual who has not been surprised by Krejcikova’s newfound success is Taylor Hawthorne, her hitting partner on tour in 2019 and 2020.

“With Barbora’s confidence and ability to compete at the highest level in doubles, it was inevitable her singles would evolve into what it has today,” Hawthorne said. “When she’s set up, she can really strike the ball. She’s got a very strong lower body.”

Saturday’s match-up in Court Philippe Chatrier will be the first between Krejcikova and Pavlyuchenkova in singles (they have played twice in doubles with Krejcikova winning both times).

While Grand Slam semi-finals and finals are rarified air for both players, each has beaten a major champion in the fourth round on her way to this weekend’s championship match. Pavlyuchenkova ousted two-time Australian Open winner Victoria Azarenka 5-7, 6-3, 6-2, and Krejcikova blew away 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-0.

Valuable ranking points and a winner’s cheque of 1.4 million euros ($1.7 US million dollars) await Saturday’s winner.

“I never imagined that I’m actually going to be a Grand Slam finalist,” Krejcikova said. “It sounds, I mean, incredible. I cannot believe it, it’s actually happening.”

For Krejcikova it would cap off a meteoric rise from those days last summer measuring herself against all the other Czech players. She has made incredible progress and actually, even before Roland Garros, was already No. 12 in the WTA’s Race to Shenzhen based solely on her results in 2021. The No. 13 and No. 14 spots belong to her fellow countrywomen, Karolina Pliskova and Petra Kvitova respectively. Krejcikova will be moving even higher after Roland Garros and into the Top 5 if she wins the title.

Pavlyuchenkova, through all the peaks and valleys and periods of stasis in her career, has kept an image of herself one day holding a Grand Slam trophy.

“I think about it all the time,” she said. “Like been thinking about it since I was a junior. Since I was a little kid. Since I started playing tennis. That’s what you playing for. That’s what you want. It’s been there in my head forever.”

Everyone will be watching on Saturday to learn how the wild ride of 2021 Roland Garros comes to an end when the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen lands in Pavlyuchenkova or Krejcikova’s hands.

  • Per INSIGHTS, Krejcikova has the UTR Rating edge in every category including Overall (12.98 to 12.81), Clay (12.98 to 12.88), and Three Month (13.01 to. 12.94).
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