Barbora Krejcikova thought about her late coach all the time and went from unseeded to Grand Slam champion at the French Open.
Aside from a shaky set, Krejcikova just won her fifth major tournament as a singles player by beating 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in the final at Roland Garros on Saturday.
When it ended with Pavlyuchenkova’s backhand landing long on the fourth match point ahead of Krejcikova, a 25-year-old from the Czech Republic, they met at the net for a hug.
Then Krejcikova blew kisses to the sky, her eyes narrowed, as a tribute to her former coach, Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon champion who died of cancer in 2017.
“Virtually her last words were just enjoying and just trying to win a Grand Slam. I know she’s looking over me somewhere,” Krejcikova told the crowd to Court Philippe Chatrier, limited to 5,000 people because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“She was such an inspiration to me. I just miss her so much,” Krejcikova said. “I hope she’s happy now.”
She is the third unseeded women’s champion in the past five years at Roland Garros.
Krejcikova will now aim to become the first woman since Mary Pierce in 2000 to win the French Open singles and doubles titles in the same year. Krejcikova and partner Katerina Siniakova already have two Grand Slam doubles titles in their hands and will play in the final of that event on Sunday.
The 31st seeded Pavlyuchenkova played in her first Grand Slam final in the 52nd major tournament of her career.
She was treated late in the second set on Saturday for a left leg injury.
This was only Krejcikova’s second WTA singles title, but they are in her last two tournaments. She won the trophy on clay last month in Strasbourg, France and now has a 12-game winning streak.
She is the sixth consecutive Grand Slam champion to receive the trophy at Roland Garros, where the red clay can reduce the effectiveness of quick serves and the sometimes odd bounces on a surface that can frustrate players and require special footwork.
Saturday’s match between two first Grand Slam finalists was perhaps a fitting end to a two-week full of surprises.
Naomi Osaka, a four-time major champion with No. 2, withdrew after one match – and a conflict with Grand Slam officials over a rule requiring it to speak to the media – to take a mental health break. Number 1 ranked Ash Barty, the 2019 champion, retired from her second round match with a left hip injury. No. 3 Simona Halep, the 2018 champion, never showed up due to a hurt calf. Serena Williams was defeated in the fourth round. Defending champion Iga Swiatek lost in the quarterfinals.
Krejcikova spoke candidly about her feelings of stress and panic earlier in the tournament before taking on the U.S. in the fourth round. 2017 Open Champion and runner-up in the 2018 French Open, Sloane Stephens.
Krejcikova said she was afraid she wouldn’t win a game and was in tears because she didn’t even want to play the game before her sports psychologist talked her through it.
Good thing too, because Krejcikova defeated Stephens 6-2, 6-0. That went hand in hand with victories over number 5 seeded Elina Svitolina and number 24 Coco Gauff, a 17-year-old American, before Krejcikova saved a match point in the semifinals, beating number 17 Maria Sakkari 9-7 in the third set.
On Saturday there were some jitters in the opening game: Krejcikova made two double faults and was broken.
But she immediately recovered.
Krejcikova excelled with her sharp two-handed backhand, improved net skills in the doubles and particularly good use of defensive lobs. One curled over Pavlyuchenkova and landed right into a corner for a winner that helped Krejcikova break through to 1-1 and started a six-game run that gave her the first set. Another was dumped into the net when attempting from above by a back-pedaling Pavlyuchenkova.
But Pavlyuchenkova regrouped and led 5-1 in the second set. But then she stretched for a backhand, cringed and leaned on her racket as she reached for her left thigh.
On the subsequent switch, she took a medical time-out. A trainer treated and taped the leg while Pavlyuchenkova lay face down on a towel, a bag of candy within reach.
Pavlyuchenkova immediately claimed that set. While Krejcikova made a long trip to the locker room for the third, Pavlyuchenkova stood on the sidelines and made a serve move to practice landing on her left leg.
In the third inning, it was Krejcikova who kept sniffing forward. She broke and led 2-1 when Pavlyuchenkova committed a double foul. After Pavlyuchenkova broke right back and capped it off with a big forehand winner who she celebrated with a scream, Krejcikova got the upper hand again by breaking love with a forehand winner who made it 4-3.
Pavlyuchenkova saved two match points while serving at 5-3, and Krejcikova wasted another by making a double foul in the next game.
But she won it at the next chance and soon kissed the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen and gently shook the trophy during the Czech national anthem.