By Sharada Iyer, Tennis With An Accent
It was a final that not even the most seasoned and erring-on-the-side-of-caution analyst could have predicted. And the match between Barbora Krejcikova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to decide the women’s singles champion at the 2021 French Open rode the wave of this unpredictability right up to the end. But within this churn of unknown, there was something fitting and predictable about the Czech claiming her first Major singles title.
Although she had broken new ground by reaching the final, it wasn’t an entirely unknown landscape for Krejcikova given her frequent trips to the final in the doubles events. And where she was able to draw upon her past experiences as a Slam champion to keep building upon her dreams, Krejcikova’s approach to address the newcomer-vibe of playing a Major final was just as practical as it was keeping with the norm of recent times.
“I’m just really happy that I was able to handle it as I did, that mentally I think that was the biggest key,” Krejcikova said post-win. “I spoke with my psychologist again and we spoke about it a lot. I just knew that as soon as I’m going to enter the court, I’m just not going to be panicking anymore. That was actually happening… I mean, it’s something I have always dreamed about, winning here – my first doubles title, then some [other Grand Slam] doubles title, then winning the mixed ones. Now I was just telling myself, ‘It would be really nice if I can get the Grand Slam in all three categories.’ Now it’s happening. I cannot believe it.”
Looking back at the match now, it’s obvious that Krejcikova was able to execute her tactics – mentally as much as dealing with the on-court pressure – well.
The Brno native was the better composed of the two players for most parts of the match, if not its entirety. She absorbed the enormity of the situation without letting it overawing her. And she played as though she would play any other match; where each shot and point mattered for their sake rather than being the adjudicators of the game itself.
Not only then was Krejcikova successful in drawing out the match on a point-per-point basis, she also didn’t rush to engage in a game-and-sets version of play-making unlike her opponent, Pavlyuchenkova, whose game looked harried and disjointed as she tried to tilt the scoreboard to benefit her. Thus, in the opening set, while this allowed Krejcikova to entirely reset her mind and game after getting broken in the first game, her attitude helped her reroute the match in the deciding set after losing the second set to the Russian.
Krejcikova’s fortnight in Paris, across the seven matches she played, too, was built upon such simplicity and meticulousness. And this endeavour was one that was repeated, regardless of whether the results were one-sided – like in her third and fourth-round matches against Elina Svitolina and Sloane Stephens respectively – or eked-out, as it happened in her semi-final against Maria Sakkari.
From a slightly broader perspective, thanks to such break-down of a match to its nitty-gritty Krejcikova is now on a 12-match winning streak, going back to her maiden WTA singles title at the Strasbourg International, a couple of weeks ago. There again, beyond being the offering of a plumb lead-up to the French Open, the tournament in Strasbourg seems to have been the catalyst spurring Krejcikova to reorient her game in such a marked contrast to how she’d played her previous two singles finals, one of which came at the Dubai Open this year in March, against Garbine Muguruza.
Perhaps, then, the rechanneling of Krejcikova’s persona as a player in these past couple of weeks has been because of her rediscovering, relearning and reapplying – with better conviction – the principles of her former coach, the late Jana Novotna.
“I was going through a really hard time when Jana passed away, I was with her most of the time. Her last words were pretty much, ‘Just enjoy it and try to win a Grand Slam,’” Krejcikova said, with tears in her eyes, right after her victory.
It was an emotional dedication – one of the many which had come about this fortnight – to a sportsperson who’d been selfless in her mentoring of a youngster. In it was also a reaffirmation that regardless of how far she’d come along in her journey as a tennis pro, Krejcikova would follow the ethics and ethos of her late mentor.
“She wasn’t acting like she won so many titles, that she’s somebody special. She’s always acting like a normal person… She always told me like, ‘Doesn’t matter how many titles you’re going to win, you always have to come and say hello, please, and thank you. It’s very important to behave very nice.’ I take all of this and I really appreciate because that’s what she was actually doing. She was a great athlete. She was still very humble. She’s a big role model. I just want to be the same as she was,” Krejcikova had said, reminiscing.
Winning her first Slam seems to be the ideal way to go about for Krejcikova to try and adhere to this life lesson of Novotna’s.