Karolina Muchova (L) reacts during her semi-final match against Aryna Sabalenka on Thursday. Reuters
Sabalenka, who won the Australian Open in January, was a point from finishing off the topsy-turvy, three-hour-plus semifinal at 5-2 in the third set but then collapsed, dropping 20 of 24 points down the stretch. It was tough to decide which was more stunning: that Sabalenka lost - or the way she lost.
In Saturday’s title match, Karolina Muchova will meet either No.1 Iga Swiatek, the defending champion, or No.14 Beatriz Haddad Maia. Their semifinal was scheduled for later on Thursday.
At No.43, Karolina Muchova is the fourth-lowest-ranked women’s finalist in French Open history. And the way she managed to get there was rather remarkable.
"I just tried to keep fighting and it worked,” Karolina Muchova said. "I really don't know what happened.”
Until Saturday, this trip to Paris was far more complicated off the court for Sabalenka than on it, where all six of her opponents was unseeded.
The subject of Belarus’ role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine - the attacks began in February 2022 and continue to this day - and Sabalenka’s stance on the matter arose repeatedly, in part because she faced two Ukrainian opponents.
She was asked about the war following each of her first two victories, and Sabalenka refused to participate in standard post-match news conferences after her next two contests, saying she "did not feel safe” and wanted to protect her "mental health and well-being.” She returned to speaking to the media after her quarterfinal win.
In the 80-degree warmth of Court Philippe Chatrier, Karolina Muchova’s variety and all-court style provided the right mix against one of the game’s biggest hitters.
An oversimplification, granted, but think of it this way: Sabalenka tries to hit the ball past her opponent; Karolina Muchova tries to hit the ball away from her opponent.
The third set appeared to tilt toward Sabalenka - who came into the day 12-0 in 2023 Slam matches -when her pressure prompted some extra errors. A long forehand by Karolina Muchova resulted in a service break and a 4-2 lead for Sabalenka, who held for 5-2. That’s when it all began to come apart for her.
Sabalenka needed just one more point when it was 5-2, but Karolina Muchova came up with a forehand winner to erase that chance and eventually held there. Sabalenka then served for the victory, but couldn’t close things out, and Muchova broke to 5-4. At the ensuing changeover, Muchova sat down and massaged her right thigh. Soon enough, suddenly, it was 5-all.
Sabalenka continued to struggle and, as if blaming it all on her racket, tried to get the attention of her entourage in the stands so she could swap her equipment.
Karolina Muchova — who was stretching between points - simply kept hitting big shots.
Karolina Muchova, a 26-year-old from the Czech Republic, has always found that her game worked best in faster conditions: Her best previous showing at a major was a semifinal run at the 2021 Australian Open on hard courts, her lone WTA title came on a hard court, and she never made it past the third round on the red clay at Roland Garros until now.
"It’s not my favourite surface,” Karolina said earlier in the tournament, "but I think I can play good on it.” Sure played well enough Thursday.
"I really hope that I give a tiny, small light, maybe some positive emotions for my country. I really hope that Ukraine a little bit enjoys (this),” Kalinina told the crowd.
Aryna Sabalenka is into her first Grand Slam final, where on Saturday she will face Wimbledon champion Rybakina, who earlier beat Victoria Azarenka in straight sets.
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