2021 Roland Garros WTA Finals
I googled Krejčíková’s name to make sure her first name didn’t have an H since I’ve been calling her Barbora, and I realized I’ve been leaving all kinds of accent marks off of her name throughout this tournament. If you make a finals, you at least deserve to have your name spelled properly, so this writeup will feature all kinds of accent marks. Or maybe just hers since I copy/pasted it from google. Anyway, this tournament has made me think I can’t predict what day of the week will even come next. What a great event, and we’re left with two tremendous players whose career is made whether they win or lose.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs Barbora Krejčíková :
A few brief rounds of normalcy in Paris almost made me forget that this tournament is producing the wildest outcomes in the most unique ways. These two finalists are very deserving, yet neither has really turned out the “oh wow they’re going to win the title” performance that you’d expect to see in some round. We saw it during Ostapenko’s incredible run. We saw Kenin’s baseline game dominate affairs in an overwhelming fashion. We saw Swiatek blow her opponents off the court. These two have gotten here the hard way though, and the subtle way. Pavlyuchenkova has had a lot big names in front of her and outlasted them. Sabalenka was the best offensive talent coming into this event and had recently won a title. Pavs outlasted her, running away with the third. Azarenka was showing some signs of finding her range on clay and is one of the most competent baseliners the tour has ever seen. Didn’t matter. Rybakina had just defeated Serena Williams. That’s cool here’s your quarterfinals check. Not a single one of these matches was dominated by Pavlyuchenkova, which makes the run to the semis even more impressive.
The semifinals saw a dedicated Zidansek playing very well, but only in short stretches. Her forehand was really her only weapon here, and Pavs went after her backhand around halfway through the set and earned a few errors. That was all the signal she needed, and she pretty much only hit her backhand to Tamara’s backhand for the rest of the match. It almost cost her the first set, as her play became a bit too predictable. Zidansek’s backhand is a liability, but knowing that the ball was heading there let her save a lot of time and effort as far as footwork was concerned, and it also made the court very small for Pavs. Some timely dropshots off the backhand looked like they’d sway the crowd, but errors accompanied the brilliance and Pavs ended up edging things just a bit. The second set saw Anastasia pull away, and although they traded some breaks, Zidansek didn’t seem to have enough offense to put Pavlyuchenkova away as she had against earlier opponents. For Pavs, this is a long time coming and one of the more feel-good stories that the WTA could produce. Her reactions after each win have been so pure, and her disbelief and happiness while looking up at her brother and the rest of her team is really nice.
Krejčíková and Sakkari was the match I thought would go three, but it seemed going in that Sakkari would be the one playing offense. This was one of the stranger matches of the tournament, as it seemed that neither player could really capitalize on their momentum. They traded 7 breaks of serve in the first set, and just when Sakkari seemed to have solved things and made a run from 5-3 to 5-5, Krejčíková found a bit of rhythm and a netcord to get across the finish line in the last game. It set the stage nicely for the 2nd set letdown which seems almost automatic in tennis. Sakkari stepped her game up, and Krejčíková seemed a bit frozen. At the end of the 2nd set it did feel like Maria would continue her solid play in the 3rd. She was spreading the ball nicely, and serving well. Her physical fitness is off the charts, and her motus operandi in the event had really been wearing down her opponents and then running away with things. A few things started to happen in the third once Sakkari got up a break though. One was that she had a long way to go. An early break is something we’ll always take, but holding serving up a break is one of the hardest things to do multiple times in tennis, especially late in a match where both players are fairly comfortable with their patterns. The most important thing that happened though was Krejčíková got into a rhythm on her backhand, and the backhand to backhand exchange became the only thing that really happened in rallies. Sakkari’s backhand is good, but the short swing is better for producing sharp angles and more likely to produce errors. She started to just try to produce a bit of depth on it, and Krejčíková was able to take her big, slow, smooth swing and just dominate affairs. “Hit it down the line, hit a slice, etc” are things that are hard to go for in the moment, but what happens when you don’t produce variation is that (like in the Zidansek/Pavs match) your opponent gets into a rhythm and doesn’t have to respect those other shots. It becomes a practice drill and if you watch videos of these players in practice, they hit the ball way harder and way cleaner because they know they’re not going to be facing offensive offerings from their hitting partner. The other bad part of getting locked into an exchange that doesn’t favor you is that when you do realize it, it tends to be late in the set/match and mentally it is so hard to produce the other shots simply because you haven’t hit them in so long.
Sakkari was extremely clutch with some of her holds of serve facing match points towards the end. She found brilliant sharp angles when she needed to, and served a few aces, but they were all outliers surrounding a match which saw her just completely forget about Krejčíková’s forehand. Honestly, Sakkari played a better match, and was the better player. Krejčíková played the bigger moments better though and her offense never faltered. When she had balls to hit, she went after them. She also employed the devastating moonball late in the match and found immediate success. Sakkari began running backwards on them, and I shouted at my laptop. Moonballs are tough to deal with, and late in a match it’s daunting to step in and take them on the rise. It’s what you need to do though. You need to have faith as a professional player that you can execute every shot when it is the correct shot. Moonballs are intended to buy you time, and so that is the last thing you want to allow them to do. Sakkari didn’t miss on them, but her flat offerings are way better from the baseline than they are from deep in the court. It rendered her ineffective, and let Krejčíková employ her measured offense once she was able to get up the court. Sakkari did try to rush one late in the match but she committed to running in before she even saw the shot that was coming and wound up trying to force a dropshot volley. A nice idea, but the physics of making a ball die out when it’s travelling at that trajectory is near impossible without full commitment to the shot (and full commitment would mean applying a ton of sidespin (a la Paire) which would make it low percentage anyway). Parentheses inside parentheses? Is that even legal? Probably not. A very close ball near the line on a match point led to some healthy discussion of using hawkeye in the future on clay, and as much as I love the umpires, so many of the calls in key moments seem to be made in a way that balances the outcomes. You can tell just by how the umpire jogs down the court who he’s going to call it for, and it means that game management and attitude on court often get rewarded. That reversal on that call may have robbed Krejčíková, but it also was the “it’s match point I’m not going to call it out” factor at play and so it’s a bit better for a computer to make the decision.
In the end, Krejčíková came through. 9-7 is a crusher, and it is for me as well. Sakkari and Pavs is a pretty easy match to call. Sakkari plays a similar game, but is faster and stronger. She serves a bit better, and I’d like her to win. Pavlyuchenkova vs Krejčíková is a bit trickier though. They’ve never played each other before, and they’re literally 32 and 33 in the rankings. Both are extremely consistent baseliners, whose serves are a bit underrated. Krejčíková has a better backhand than most players on tour, but Pavs can hit the ball hard enough with hers to take away time from Barbora. Time is what Krej needs, as she takes measured slow-motion swings and really booms the ball. In a mirror of Nadal Novak today, I expect this to be very difficult to gauge as matters progress. Nerves are likely to play a part, but both are playing well enough and play conservative enough that it shouldn’t matter a lot. Both should be able to return serve fairly well, with an edge on aggression going to Pavs, but with her also making a few more errors because she does go after things. Krej hasn’t lost in literal weeks, and her serve out wide is very effective at opening the court. Pavs has played the harder draw by far, and hits the ball a bit bigger on her forehand. She might move a slight bit better than Krejčíková, but neither are going to just get blown off the court. If ever there could be a 7-6, 6-7, 10-8 match this would be it for me. There’s just not a lot to separate the two, but Krejčíková has a bit more offense and has played much less tennis so far this event. It’d be nice to say she’ll be fresher, but the last round was grueling both physically and emotionally for her, where Pavlyuchenkova won fairly quickly. Is it legal to say I don’t know? I almost feel here that for sentimental reasons, I am trying to make a case for Pavs to win, and deep in my shell I think that Krejčíková is more equipped to put this match away. She has a bit less power but her shots are a lot sharper. This is a player who is in the singles and doubles finals, so if fatigue were going to be a major factor it would have reared its ugly head already. I would expect a tremendous finals, and there really are no losers here since both players have already had their greatest finish in a major by several rounds here. Krejcikova in 3.