New perspective carries Krejcikova into first Slam semi

Czech sheds "doubles specialist" tag to secure deep run in singles with victory over Coco Gauff

Barbora Krejcikova, Roland Garros 2021, quarter-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT
 - Danielle Rossingh

In her own words, Barbora Krejcikova never wanted to be “just a doubles player".

Mentored by the late Jana Novotna, a former Wimbledon champion, from her late teens, the 25-year-old Czech had excelled in doubles, winning Grand Slam titles in both doubles and mixed, and topping the doubles rankings in 2018. But somehow, Krejcikova found it tough to crack the top 100 in singles.

Then the coronavirus pandemic came, and everything changed.

With all professional tennis on hold for five months from the start of the spring of 2020, Krejcikova finally had time to work on some technical aspects of her singles game. More importantly, the pandemic helped her her put things in perspective.

Her new approach paid off on Wednesday at Roland-Garros, where she saved five set points in the first set to beat 17-year-old Coco Gauff 7-6(6), 6-3 and move to her first singles Grand Slam semi-final.

“Just seeing that there are also other things in the world that actually are happening, are just tougher and more difficult than just me playing tennis and losing, or me just playing tennis,” the Krejcikova told reporters in Paris.

“I go and I play tennis and I lose, but there are actually people that are losing their lives. I just felt more like, 'Well, just relax because you are healthy. Just appreciate this and just enjoy the game'.”

Looking back, Krejcikova realised she had been putting herself under too much pressure when it came to playing singles.

“I never really wanted to be a doubles specialist,” said the 33rd-ranked Czech, who plays Greece’s Maria Sakkari in the semi-final on Thursday.

“So I was just working hard all the time. I just wanted to play singles. It was really frustrating that I just wasn't able to get there.

"But I always felt like if I'm going to work hard, I'm just going to continue, just try to be patient, which is not really my thing, but I felt sooner or later I'm just going to get there and I will have a chance to play all these top players, to learn something, gain some experience."

Gauff had been the better played for the most part in the first set, and had plenty of opportunities to win it as she led 3-0, 5-3, and then 6-4 in the tiebreak.

But winning tennis matches is all about taking the big points, and that’s what Krejcikova did. Finally finding her range after a nervous start, she saved five set points to clinch the first set in 72 minutes.

Barbora Krejcikova, Coco Gauff, Roland Garros 2021, quarter-finals© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

On the brink of her first Grand Slam semi-final as she led 5-1, 40-0 in the second set, Krejcikova suddenly got tight, failing to take all three match points and dropping serve. Serving for the semi-final for a second time at 5-3, Krejcikova set up three more match points with a service winner, and finally got over the line on her sixth opportunity as Gauff sent a forehand wide.

“You got to be aggressive, you just got to go, you got to play, you are still up,” said Krejcikova about missing the first five match points. “Just go for your shots. If you're going to stay aggressive, it's not going to slip. That's what I was telling to myself.”

As for the 24th-seeded Gauff, there is no doubt her time will come.

Although the young American seemed lost at the start of the second set in her first Grand Slam quarter-final, quickly going down 0-5, and at one stage receiving a code violation from the umpire for breaking her racquet on the clay, she showed heart at the end of the match as she battled back to 5-3. 

Gauff was full of praise for her opponent’s mental strength.

“She played well in the pressure points,” said Gauff, who had been one of the pre-tournament favourites after winning on clay in singles and doubles in Parma.

“She also redirected the ball really, really well, kind of making me make mistakes. I said this even before going to the match. I knew she was going to play very smart tennis and play the high-percentage plays. That's what she did today.”

Novotna, who died in 2017 at the age of 49 from cancer, would have been proud of her pupil matching her own best result at Roland-Garros.

“It’s perfect,” said Krejcikova, who is currently on a 10-match winning streak, having lifted her maiden singles title in Strasbourg on the eve of Roland-Garros.

“I always think about her. Every time I go on court, I step out of the court, I always think about her. I'm always wondering what she would tell me after such a run, all this winning matches and everything. I'm just really sad I cannot actually hear her and she cannot really say anything.”