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The Rally: At a French Open where new faces confronted big moments, Barbora Krejcikova completes a breakout singles run
Scratch the surface of the WTA these days and you’ll find a game as appealing and complete as the 25-year-old Czech's.
Published Jun 12, 2021
HIGHLIGHTS: Unseeded Barbora Krejcikova wins Roland Garros
As I watched unseeded Barbora Krejcikova win Roland Garros, 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, I reflected on various nations and the playing styles that frequently emerge from them. Spaniards tend to be fit and forceful baseliners. The French are often shotmakers. Russians learn powerful groundstrokes.
Then there is the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia, and their own mix of technique and artistry. Start with how players like Krejcikova are taught to address the ball. Think back to Miloslav Mecir and Daniela Hantuchova—never do they appear rushed. Their strokes are smooth and deceptive, constantly able to rob opponents of time and space. And as Krejcikova showed frequently over the course of her title run, along with that comes an appetite for variety—drop shots, volleys, spins and speeds.
Much credit for this goes to Krejcikova’s mentor, the late Jana Novotna. Like Novotna, Krejcikova has spent several years building a name for herself in doubles, winning two Grand Slam doubles titles and three in mixed. Over the course of this fortnight, all those skills repeatedly surfaced in her singles play. It was a refreshing sight. It was also terrific to hear Krejcikova cite her debt to Novotna.
In a sport as highly individualistic as tennis, it’s endearing to see players recognize their connections to others. The Czech Republic has is its own chain of history. Novotna had been coached by another Czech, Hana Mandlikova, Roland Garros champion in 1981. Mandlikova was a rival of Martina Navratilova. Navratilova was mentored in her teens by fellow Czech Jan Kodes, who won two straight titles at Roland Garros in 1970 and ’71. Fitting indeed that Kodes was in the stands and that Navratilova was the legend who awarded the trophy to Krejcikova.
Steve, what struck you about the women’s event at Roland Garros this year?
Let me start at the end, with the final shot of Krejcikova’s win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova: How does chair umpire Kader Nouni not come down and double-check that mark? It was way too close to be the shot that decides who wins a Grand Slam title. Put me in the camp that says Roland Garros should splurge for Hawk-Eye. I know it has a margin for error, but I’m also willing to bet it’s more accurate than chair umpires’ interpretations—or in this case, a non-interpretation—of ball marks.
Anyway, back to the tournament itself, and Krejcikova’s performance. I like the Czech (and Slovak) tradition in tennis because it has been broad and sustained enough to cover every type of player, from the heavy power of Ivan Lendl and Petra Kvitova to the unrushed smoothness of Mecir and Hantuchova to the all-court skills of Novotna, Mandlikova and Navratilova. As you say, Krejcikova’s sophisticated and polished game fits into the latter two traditions. The way she eases her backhand down the line on one shot, and then knifes under it on the next. The way she changes directions whenever she pleases. The way she spaces the court patiently rather than going for one-and-done winners. It’s easy on the tennis fan’s eye, and may remind people of a certain age of the days when top players also brought doubles skills to a singles court. I hope she’s here to stay.
Once again, I’m amazed by how much a Grand Slam can contain, and how far in the past the beginning of one can seem by the time its two weeks are over. This one began with Naomi Osaka’s announcement that she wouldn’t do post-match press conferences, and ended with perhaps the most exhaustive trophy ceremony I can remember, in which the players did a lot of post-match speaking—and, as usual, did it well.
What will I remember most? Probably the nervous semifinal epic between Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari; Coco Gauff’s quarterfinal run, when she went from prodigy to player; and that Krejcikova backhand. Everyone loves a one-hander, but she shows how much style and variety a two-hander can produce.
How about you, Joel, what do you think you’ll remember, and did you like the fact that there were so many new faces in the later rounds of the event?
Whenever I see new faces reach the late stages of a major, I’m reminded just how skilled anyone in the draw is. For all the ways we tend to attribute the success of familiar players to various attributes—power, speed, mental toughness—I don’t think anyone entirely knows what separates champions or even contenders from early-round losers.
I believe that mysterious dimension has become even more true during the pandemic. Everything from training routines to tournament schedules to travel plans is constantly in flux. Add to that the stress of it all and who can tell who is best-equipped to do well at these high-stakes events? In that sense, these days, the longstanding notion that anyone in the Top 100 can beat anyone else rings that much louder. Certainly that was the case during Roland Garros this year.
Besides Krejcikova’s title run, I’ll most remember Sakkari. Though she’s always impressed me with her fitness and focus, I’ll admit that I’ve never envisioned Sakkari as a player with the skills to go deep in a major. To think that prior to Roland Garros, Sakkari had only reached the round of 16 at a major twice. And there she was this fortnight, one point away from reaching the finals.
To see how Sakkari has improved—most notably in the serve department—sends a message to all that it’s possible to make significant technical upgrades even as an elite player. It was also fascinating to see Sakkari tactically dismantle defending champion Iga Swiatek by serving and hitting so often to her powerful forehand. It’s great to see players hatching (and executing) various game plans. Based on what Sakkari showed these last two weeks, I surely must revise my assessment.
But let me ask you this, Steve: Do you think the players who fared well at Roland Garros are in a good position for more at Wimbledon? Any in particular? Or will we at heart be starting over?
Krejcikova’s game is easy on the tennis fan’s eye, and may remind people of a certain age of the days when top players also brought doubles skills to a singles court. I hope she’s here to stay.
I’d like to think that we’ll see players like Krejcikova, Pavlyuchenkova, Sakkari, Tamara Zidansek, Gauff, Paula Badosa and Elena Rybakina use the momentum from their quarterfinal-or-better Roland Garros runs and pick up where they left off at Wimbledon. Grass is a faster surface with a lower bounce, but the game is played essentially the same way as it is on clay, and we saw Simona Halep win both majors over the course of two seasons, in 2018 and 2019. I’d say, of the players I just mentioned, only Zidansek, who wins with consistency rather than power, would theoretically have trouble adjusting her game to grass.
That brings me to an overarching thought I always have when there are a rash of upsets at any Grand Slam: How many are too many? I love them in the moments when they’re happening, love seeing expectations defied and hierarchies upended. And I love seeing relatively unknown players make it farther at major tournaments than they may have ever believed they could. The reactions of players like Zidansek and Sakkari and Badosa to their achievements, and their unexpected new status, is what makes sports worth watching. But at the same time, if everything is a surprise then nothing is, and pretty soon the women’s game starts to hear that dreaded and unfair word, “chaos” used to describe it. You need upsets, but you also stars who succeed often enough that fans see them a lot and start to care about how they do.
I liked this Roland Garros, where none of the four semifinalists were seeded in the Top 16, and I want to see all of these players again. But I could also use a good dose of Serena-Naomi-Barty-Bianca star-power at Wimbledon. Hopefully, at the very least, they’ll all make it to the starting gate there. But if there are more talents as appealing as Krejcikova waiting to be discovered, and to make their own Grand Slam breakthroughs, I won’t complain.