arbora Krejcikova looked to the heavens and gave silent thanks to her late coach and mentor, 1998 Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna.
Then she took her seat next to the chair umpire and said out loud, over and over in disbelief, “I can’t believe it.”
The unseeded Krejcikova, 25, whose name was on no one’s mind at the start of the French Open, was crowned its champion after a 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 victory over an equally unlikely finalist, 31st-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia.
The list of those Krejcikova thanked in the haze that followed was long: The fans in the stands at Roland Garros in Paris; her family back home in the Czech Republic; the coaches and trainers in her guest box; and, above all, Novotna, the compatriot, coach and mentor who gave her strength and inspiration since she the day knocked on her door as a teenager seeking help with her tennis.
“Pretty much her last words to me were, ‘Just enjoy and just try to go win a Grand Slam,’” Krejcikova told the crowd during her on-court interview, recalling the times she spent with Novotna as she lost her battle with cancer at age 49 in 2017. “I know somewhere, she is looking out for me. This happened pretty much because she is looking out for me.”
In Naomi Osaka’s withdrawal, some see a ‘wake-up call’ for sports that neglect mental health
Moments later, Krejcikova accepted the French Open trophy from another compatriot and childhood hero, Martina Navratilova, who won two of her 18 Grand Slam singles titles at the French Open.
Krejcikova becomes the sixth different French Open women’s champion in as many years.
Attrition of the sport’s biggest names and highest seeds was high. Heading into the second week, seven of the top 10 seeds had departed.
World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty, the 2019 French Open champion, defaulted mid-match in the second round with a hip injury suffered earlier in the tournament.
Second-seeded Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam champion, withdrew after winning her first-round match, citing mental health issues and a wish to not be a “distraction” after being fined and threatened with disqualification for her decision not to participate in mandatory news conferences.
The two Americans ranked in the top 10 — Sofia Kenin and Serena Williams — were upset in the fourth round.
By the time the 128-player field was winnowed to four, there was barely a seed or widely recognized name among them. All were first-time Grand Slam semifinalists.
No doubt, Krejcikova’s victory will be life-changing, as will Pavlyuchenkova’s success in reaching her first Grand Slam final one month shy of her 30th birthday.
But it may be that the woman who had the biggest impact at the 2021 French Open is Osaka, whose stance — and the authoritarian response of the sport’s four Grand Slams — started a conversation about athletes’ mental health.
Osaka paid a steep price for doing so, withdrawing from the French and an upcoming grass-court event. Her status for Wimbledon, which starts in two weeks, is unclear. But with her disclosure of the depression and anxiety she has long suffered and continues to battle, Osaka put sports organizations, fans and the media on notice that athletes’ emotional and psychological health is as significant as their physical.
The mood in the stands at Court Philippe-Chatrier, where capacity was capped at roughly 30 percent (or 5,000 spectators), was far more subdued than it was Friday night, when French authorities granted a waiver of the mandatory 11 p.m. Parisian curfew to allow ticket holders to stay for the conclusion of the Novak Djokovic-Rafael Nadal semifinal.
Novak Djokovic outlasts Rafael Nadal in a French Open classic, earns spot in final
On Saturday, as the momentum swung from Krejcikova to Pavlyuchenkova and back, crowd noise was minimal, as if fans felt empathy for the athletes struggling to show their full potential as first-time finalists.
Even the morning after, former tennis champions and fans alike were still buzzing about the brilliance of Djokovic’s four-sets victory and the valor of 13-time French Open champion Nadal in defeat.
It was cool and partly cloudy when the women’s final got underway shortly after 3 p.m. in Paris.
Although Krejcikova had won a doubles title on the French Open’s main court, and Pavlyuchenkova had appeared on it several times during her lengthy pro career, Saturday’s final was the first time on the biggest stage in clay-court tennis with these stakes for both.
Their edginess showed.
After they traded service breaks to open the match, Krejcikova steadied herself quickly and reeled off six consecutive games to close the first set in an efficient 30 minutes.
Pavlyuchenkova, by far the more experienced player, looked at sea as the games sped past.
It wasn’t until the second set that Pavlyuchenkova held serve, and it seemed to do wonders for her confidence as she rolled to a 3-0 lead.
Serving for the second set at 5-1, Pavlyuchenkova grimaced after planting her left leg in an awkward position. She lost the game and called for the trainer during the changeover. The match was paused several minutes as the Russian lay on her stomach on the clay while the back of her upper left thigh was massaged and then heavily wrapped with athletic tape.
When play resumed, the worry in Pavlyuchenkova’s camp was that the leg injury would impair her ability to push off, which is critical in serving. She managed to hold, nonetheless, leveling the match at one set each.
After Krejcikova took a permissible yet several minutes’ off-court break of her own, the third set got underway.
They traded service breaks early.
Pavlyuchenkova fended off two break points to stave off defeat.
But when Krejcikova’s turn came to serve for the match, she didn’t falter