Muchova denies Sabalenka for first Slam final

The unseeded Czech surged back to beat second seed in three-hour thriller

Karolina Muchova, demi-finales, Roland-Garros 2023
©Philippe Montigny / FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

Unseeded Czech Karolina Muchova will vie for her maiden Grand Slam title after saving match point against Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka in a Roland-Garros semi-final boilover on Thursday.

The ice-cool Czech showed guile, grace and guts over three hours and 13 minutes for a 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5 upset of a woman who was riding a 12-match major winning streak.

Sabalenka was bidding to become the first woman since Serena Williams in 2015 to claim the first two majors of the season.

Her defeat means top seed and reigning champion Iga Swiatek only needs to reach the final to retain the world No.1 ranking.

Story of the match

The 43rd-ranked Muchova was bound to make this a game of cat and mouse, wholly aware she could not out-muscle the might of Sabalenka in baseline exchanges if the second seed was on her game.

The 26-year-old could rattle her rhythm though, drawing on a full kit of backhand slices, pace changes and deft placement.

Fearless at net, the Czech did just that as she dug herself out of a hole to level at 4-all and brought up her first break point a game later with an assertive forehand volley winner.

Serving out the set was a taller order. Sabalenka came roaring back and saved a set point in the process, but after 69 minutes her opponent skipped to the chair with the tiebreak in the bag.

She only looked to be gathering steam when she surged to the early break in the second set, but instead it set off a string of tit-for-tat shifts in momentum.

With a tour-leading 34 match wins already this season and her back to the wall, Sabalenka found her authoritative best to level at 5-all and she needed it to prolong this showdown.

She did so after two hours and 12 minutes and cracked open the deciding set with a break in the sixth game.

It was all or nothing for Muchova as she faced a match point on her own serve at 2-5.

A final twist was in store with Sabalenka unable to contain string and mental tension woes and a rampant opponent who reeled off the final five games of the contest.

Aryna Sabalenka, Roland-Garros 2023, semi-final© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Key stats

The former world No.19 joins Martina Navratilova, Lucie Safarova, Marketa Vondrousova and 2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova as the fifth Czech woman to reach the Roland-Garros decider.

Her win bolsters her status as a Grand Slam giant-killer, having now beaten four top-three opponents, including then No.1 Ashleigh Barty in the 2021 Australian Open quarter-finals (she is 5-0 against top-three opposition overall).

Muchova converted all five break point opportunities, while Sabalenka made good on a mere four of 13 chances.

Sabalenka’s 44 winners were six more but her 53 unforced errors were almost double.

What the players said

Muchova: “I was ready to leave it all out there. I did. At that moment, 2-5, I didn't really know if I'll make it or not. I was just thinking to try and then that she broke my serve and I can break her serve as well. I was trying to, yeah, trying to play every point and put her under pressure, try to get back into the game and mix it up with slices and don't give her easy balls, because she was serving really well.

"I think that and emotionally here and there I had to let it out and scream a little bit. I was trying to keep myself calm during the whole match and to be in control of that. But then, yeah, it was crazy out there. I could hear the people and really it was helping me a lot the people around and the energy."

Muchova on dealing with constant injury setbacks: "There has been many moments, many lows, I would say, from one injury to another. For sure when I missed Australian Open last year, and I was in a pretty bad state health-wise, I was working out a lot to try to get back.

"You never know. Some doctors told me, you know, maybe you'll not do sport anymore. But I always kept it kind of positive in my mind and tried to work and do all the exercises to be able to come back."

Sabalenka draws the positives: "You're always facing some challenges and I definitely have to learn something from this match and come back stronger.

"I think what I was doing and hopefully I will keep doing it this season, that's incredible, just next level. I don't look at this tournament as negative tournament. I think I did great improvement on the clay court, and it's my best result here."