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While it hasn’t been quite an out-of-body experience, it’s unlikely that any of the four women remaining in Roland Garros believed they would be in the semi-finals. But even if they had, it’s 100 percent certain no one could have imagined who would be there alongside them.
- After running the simulations, INSIGHTS dubbed the chances of this year's Roland Garros women's semi-final lineup as one in a million.
As matches have played out over the past 11 days, there became more reason why No. 18-ranked Maria Sakkari, No. 32 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, No. 33 Barbora Krejcikova and No. 85 Tamara Zidansek (with a combined pre-event record of 26-21 at Roland Garros) gained the confidence they could make it to the final four.
Each had a breakthrough victory that gave them the belief that greater things awaited. Pavlyuchenkova ousted No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka, Krejcikova beat No. 5 Elina Svitolina and Zidansek upset No. 6 Bianca Andreescu.
- Per INSIGHTS, Krejcikova has the biggest chances of emerging this weekend as a Grand Slam winner with 31%, followed by Pavlyuchenkova at 20%.
It took Sakkari’s win over No. 8 seed and defending champion Iga Swiatek on Wednesday to strike the final blow that created the most improbable semi-final line-up in the history of the Open: no seeded player higher than No. 17 remains.
Now a new adventure begins as four players who have never been in this situation are plunged into the pressure of being two matches away from a life-changing experience: winning a major.
With no textbook for how to prepare for the challenge, it will be fascinating to see which of these novice semi-finalists best handles the pressure and adversity of such a glorious opportunity.
Here’s a look at Thursday’s matches:
No. 31 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova vs unseeded No. 85 Tamara Zidansek
How did this unlikely final four come together? In a nutshell, Zidansek has shown remarkable grit in grinding out three-set wins over No. 7-ranked Andreescu (three hours and 20 minutes), No. 68 Katerina Siniakova (one hour and 57 minutes) and No. 35 Paula Badosa (two hours and 26 minutes). Pavlyuchenkova has eliminated two higher-ranked opponents, No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka and No. 15 seed Victoria Azarenka.
If there’s a common denominator amongst these two women, it’s that they have both been working with sports psychologists.
“Once you get to this stage, it’s all about mental game,” Zidansek said. “It’s not like you can hit the ball harder or that you can run faster. It’s about believing, just self-confidence, trying to compose yourself in the tough situations and just keep fighting. That takes a lot of mental preparation and a lot of energy. (My sports psychologist) has helped me a lot with that.”
The Slovenian’s opponent in the quarter-finals, Badosa, came in with a 13-2 clay-court season, including a WTA 250 title in Belgrade, but Zidansek was the bolder competitor late in the match. The underdog and the less flashy shot-maker, Zidansek hit 48 winners and 39 unforced errors to Badosa’s 31 winners and 47 unforced errors. “I guess I managed to keep my composure today a little bit better than her,” Zidansek said.
With Dallas Mavericks basketballer Luka Doncic out of the NBA playoffs, the 23-year-old Zidansek is at the top of the sports news in Slovenia, a nation with a population of 2 million.
If Zidansek is the revelation of this year’s event, then 29-year-old Pavlyuchenkova is a well-known quantity. She has been on the scene since winning three junior Grand Slam titles and becoming the ITF Junior World Champion back in 2006.
It’s been a mystery as to why she hasn’t had more success since joining the tour more than 15 years ago. Her career-best ranking was No. 13 in 2011 and, until Tuesday, she had been to six Grand Slam quarter-finals but never further.
“I think I have always had the game,” Pavlyuchenkova said. “It’s just my mental (game) wasn’t there. I wasn’t fit enough and mentally maybe not strong enough. I’m working on this aspect, working with a sports psychologist now quite recently. Already I feel like it’s starting to pay off.”
The payoff was noticeable in her 6-7(2), 6-2, 9-7 win over Elena Rybakina on Tuesday that she was the more composed and focused in the final crucial few games.
While both players in Thursday’s semi-final have become mentally stronger, Zidansek may be slightly superior in that regard while Pavlyuchenkova possesses a power game that should be marginally more potent as they prepare to match up for the first time.
- While the second semi-final is expected to be close, INSIGHTS gives Pavlyuchenkova 70% odds of beating Zidansek. Their UTR Ratings have the largest margin as well with Pavlyuchenkova at 12.74 and Zidansek at 12.39.
No. 17 Maria Sakkari vs unseeded No. 33 Barbora Krejcikova
There are plenty of unusual numbers associated with the remaining four and one in particular sticks out with Krejcikova. The Czech is 25 years old and could become the Roland Garros champion on Saturday without ever having played a singles match at Wimbledon or the US Open. While the worldwide pandemic affected her debut plans last year, it serves to show what dramatic progress she has made from being a doubles specialist to a legitimate singles threat. Roland Garros this year is just her fifth appearance in a Grand Slam singles draw. She went from No. 135 at the end of 2019 to a current projected ranking inside of the Top 25 that could go as high as the Top 15 if she wins the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen on Saturday.
Krejcikova enters Thursday’s semi-final against Sakkari with a 2-0 head-to-head advantage after wins in Dubai in March and in the final of an ITF $25,000 in Torun, Poland back in 2014.
Precedence has had little significance this fortnight with Krejcikova and Sakkari basically starting out with a clean slate. Krejcikova has to feel fate is favoring her after saving five set points in beating Coco Gauff 7-6(6), 6-3 in Wednesday’s quarter-final. Sakkari has to have sky-high confidence from slaying the dragon of the 2020 and 2021 tournament by upsetting defending champion Swiatek 6-4, 6-4.
“I’m speechless, it’s a dream come true,” Sakkari said on court after her victory. But with no day off before Thursday’s semi-final, the Greek has to turn her thoughts to facing Krejcikova. Asked about her 6-2, 7-6(4) loss to the Czech in Dubai’s first round, she said, “I did not play well in Dubai. It was one of her best weeks. She played very, very good. But different conditions, fast court, fast balls. I made a lot of unforced errors. I think, of course, it’s going to be very tough. But I’m confident that my coaches will give me the right game plan.”
Sakkari and her other semi-finalists are far from household names with mass appeal. In their defense, the 25-year-old Greek said, “I think all of us, the four semi-finalists, have been playing really good this year. You cannot really see what is the real ranking (adjusted for the pandemic with some 2019 results still counting). It’s a surprise for everyone. But (Pavlyuchenkova), she played really well in Madrid. (Krejicikova), she played the final in Dubai. She won was it Strasbourg last week?”
Krejicikova did indeed win Strasbourg for her first WTA singles title and she has eight titles in doubles including two Grand Slams (Roland Garros and Wimbledon in 2018). Her doubles success gives her some advantage in experience over the other three semi-finalists.
“Everybody just put a label on me like, yeah, you play doubles, you are a doubles specialist,” Krejcikova said. “But I never thought I just want to be a doubles specialist. We won our first two Grand Slams when I was 22. I felt like I don't want to be a doubles specialist when I was 22. I want to play singles, I want to work hard, improve my game.”
While Krejicikova is No. 33 to Sakkari’s No. 18 in the current rankings, in the WTA’s Race to Shenzhen, based only on 2021 results, the Czech is actually No. 12, four places ahead of the Greek’s No. 16 ranking. In the Race, the other semi-finalists, Pavlyuchenkova and Zidansek, are inside the Top 50 at No. 34 and No. 46, respectively.
It’s worth remembering that 2017 Roland Garros winner Jelena Ostapenko was ranked No. 47, and Swiatek came into last year’s event at No. 54.
Sakkari’s mother, Angeliki Kanellopoulou, was a former pro, reaching the third round of Roland Garros in 1985 and 1987.
And Krejcikova also had a strong connection with an ex-player, her compatriot the late Jana Novotna. The 1998 Wimbledon champion died at age 49 in 2017. Novotna was a mentor, coach and inspiration.
“She would be just jumping and screaming,” Krejcikova said when asked how Novotna would have reacted to her Roland Garros success. “That’s how I remember (her). That’s actually what she was doing when I played ITFs and I won ITFs. I guess maybe it would be even bigger right now.”
- INSIGHTS gives Krejcikova the advantage by a slight margin with a 52% chance of reaching the final compared to Sakkari’s 48%. The Czech’s Clay UTR Rating is up to 13.00 compared to Sakkari’s 12.96.