Top10Matches_2021-6-wide

Over November 29-December 3 and December 6-10, we'll run down our Top 10 Matches of the 2021 season.

No. 10 | No. 9 | No. 8 | No. 7

So you think you’ve just won your first Grand Slam semifinal. You’ve watched a shot from your opponent land near the baseline, and heard the line judge call it out. You’ve thrown your hands into the air. Then you’ve watched in disbelief as the chair umpire came down walked over to the line, stared at the mark, reversed the call, and told you to replay the point.

How do you regroup from that and win a match of this magnitude—a Grand Slam semifinal—when you think it already should be yours?

Barbora Krejcikova can tell you. In a nerve-filled epic against Maria Sakkari at Roland Garros in June, she had come back from 3-5 down in the third set to lead 8-7. She had saved a match point, and lost three of her own. She had celebrated the biggest victory of her career, only to have it snatched back from her by the umpire.

“At that moment I was just like, ‘Well, it’s out, but what can you do?’” Krejcikova said. “The chair umpire, he has seen it as in. What can I do? I cannot do anything about it. I cannot call anyone, change his decision.

I was like, ‘OK, well... it’s fine. Doesn’t matter. Just let’s go.’”

“You just have to put everything together and just keep working, next one, next one, next one.”

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RELIVE IT: French Open highlights of Krejcikova's win

Unofficial Hawk-Eye replays on TV agreed with Krejcikova that the ball was out. As one might expect, that quickly rekindled the long-running debate about whether clay-court events, and especially the French Open’s clay courts, should use Hawk-Eye for overrules instead of relying on ball-mark interpretations. That’s a discussion for another day—or many days. What matters right now is what Krejcikova and Sakkari did in this chaotic classic in Court Philippe Chatrier, which, despite its imperfections, is our sixth-best match of 2021.

Neither the Czech nor the Greek had played a major singles semifinal before, and it showed. Over three hours and 18 minutes, they grabbed leads and gave them back, played brilliantly for stretches and poorly for others, overhit on one big point and were too tentative on the next. Together they made 111 unforced errors and hit 58 winners, and had more double faults than aces. But none of those numbers mattered. What mattered was how their nerves, and the courage they showed trying to overcome them, flowed from one side of the net to the other over the course of a long afternoon, as these two women tried to do something neither had ever done, and may never have believed they would do—reach a Grand Slam singles final.

“I actually think we both deserve to win because we play really, really great match,” Krejcikova said. “But only one can win. I’m really happy that it’s me, that I’m going to have another chance to play another match. I think the match was really up and down. I just told myself, ‘Just fight, fight, fight until the last point. I’m happy that I was really fighting.”

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What mattered was how their nerves, and the courage they showed trying to overcome them, flowed from one side of the net to the other over the course of a long afternoon.

The rallies, many of them long and complex, pitted Krejcikova’s smooth, varied shotmaking—she changed directions and spins constantly—against Sakkari’s hard, straight-ahead hitting. Personality-wise, it pitted Krejcikova’s expressionless calm against Sakkari’s fiery relentlessness.

The difference in the end was Sakkari’s inability to find the right mix of aggression and margin in the latter stages, when the match was on the line. Her game is to press and attack, but when she served for the match, she pressed a little too hard and made four errors. Then, with Krejcikova serving at 4-5, Sakkari went in the other direction and didn’t press hard enough.

“I have to be deadly honest,” Sakkari said. “I got stressed, started thinking that I’m a point away from being in the final. I guess it’s a rookie mistake…Got a little bit more passive on my game. Yeah, didn’t go for it. I just didn’t play offensive. I was a little bit defensive, especially in the big points. I couldn’t find a way to break her after five-all.

“I think it’s human emotions, but I think I’ll learn from it.”

And that’s what this anxious epic was about, and what all great matches are about: human emotions. Krejcikova-Sakkari was far from perfect, but it was tennis at its hair-raising best.