There is a woman in professional tennis for whom the very mention of her name has long sparked a wistfulness among her fellow players, current and past.
They rave about her buttery smooth strokes, her deceptive power, that sublime balance, the sculpted physique and the seemingly effortless movement that make it so easy to imagine her running the offense on her nation’s basketball team, or playing center midfield on its soccer team.
She is like that great indie singer whose occasional sets after midnight at the venue in the cool part of town have been caught for years by those in the know.
If Karolina Muchova can ever stay healthy, they say, watch out.
Muchova, a 26-year-old from the Czech Republic, will take on Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, in a tantalizing French Open final Saturday after upsetting Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus on Thursday in the match of the tournament, 7-6(5), 6-7(5), 7-5.
Every bit of Muchova’s repertoire was there on a steamy afternoon at Roland Garros. Lunging returns that floated down just inside the baseline. Banging forehands followed by dying drop shots. The ability to filet the hardest of Sabalenka’s forehands, which come off her racket as hard as any shot in women’s tennis, with cutting volleys that showed off the unteachable touch of a billiards shark.
She needed it all — and some guts, too.
Down a match point while serving at 2-5 in the deciding set, Muchova saved her tournament with a crisp forehand down the line and won 20 of the final 24 points to reach her first career Grand Slam final, as Sabalenka’s old errors re-emerged down the stretch.
“A little bit out of radar, but she always plays great tennis,” said Sabalenka, who said she lost her rhythm after match point escaped her. “It’s kind of a little bit tricky to build a point against her.”
A major final is where so many have thought Muchova should have been for so long. A late-ish bloomer by the standards of the Czech Republic, which seems to churn out a new collection of teenage phenoms every year despite its population of just 10.5 million, Muchova began battling injuries in her late teens, when a growth spurt pushed her height to 5-foot-11 but also spurred back and knee troubles.
She overcame those to make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon in 2019 and the semifinals of the Australian Open in 2021, stunning the world No. 1, and local favorite, Ashleigh Barty — an admittedly massive Muchova fan, by the way. But a series of nagging injuries, including a sprained ankle just as she was catching fire in the third round of last year’s French Open, sent Muchova spiraling to 235th in the world rankings, far from her peak of 19th in 2021.
“Many lows, I would say, from one injury to another,” she said after her win Thursday. “Some doctors told me, you know, maybe you’ll not do sport anymore.”
She tried to stay positive, though, grinding through one rehabilitation after another even as she struggled through small tournaments in places like Concord, Mass.; Shrewsbury, England; and Angers, France.
Things happen quickly in tennis. She entered the French Open ranked 43rd, the kind of dreaded unseeded opponent no one wants to draw. She beat the eighth-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece in the first round and dropped just one set in her first five matches. Just like that she was playing the tightest of third sets in front of 15,000 people in a Grand Slam semifinal. She could hear the trumpets and the throngs chanting her name as she tried to stay calm.
“Here and there I had to let it out and scream a little bit,” she said, adding: “It was crazy out there.”
It may very well get crazy once more on Saturday against Swiatek, who won this tournament in 2020 and 2022 and has won 13 consecutive matches at Roland Garros.
Swiatek, who turned 22 last week, has enjoyed a career that has been the polar opposite of Muchova’s. She won her first Grand Slam title when she was 19 years old, and she became the world No. 1 at 20 in April 2022, after Barty suddenly retired at age 25.
And while Swiatek initially played the kind of varied, all-court style that has garnered Muchova the lusty praise from tennis aesthetes, she largely abandoned it early last year in favor of a simpler, more aggressive approach built around taking every opportunity to blast her forehand and pound opponents off the court.
It works. Swiatek can be downright lethal, finishing so many sets with scores of 6-0 (a “bagel” in tennis parlance) or 6-1 (a “breadstick”) that Twitter often lights up with chatter about “Iga’s Bakery” when she is on the court. She does not like that all that much, saying it is disrespectful to her opponents.
Swiatek was less than clinical Thursday against Beatriz Haddad Maia, a tough and determined lefty from Brazil who, especially in the second set, moved Swiatek back and forth across the baseline and took Swiatek out of her rhythm. Uncharacteristically, Swiatek had more unforced errors than winners — 26 to 25.
Playing in front of a small but throaty cohort of chanting Brazilians, Haddad Maia, the 14th seed, got Swiatek on the ropes. She was up a break of serve early in the second set and came within a point in the tiebreaker of forcing a third.
Then Swiatek once more became the Swiatek that the world has gotten used to, especially on the red clay of Roland Garros. She curled a magical backhand on the tightest of angles to stay in the tiebreaker and finished off the match with a big forehand far out of Haddad Maia’s reach.
“Pretty excited for Saturday,” Swiatek said moments later.
If contrasts in styles are the not-so-secret sauce of great tennis matchups, then the final between Muchova and Swiatek holds the potential to be special. Swiatek will look to dig in and bang away. Muchova will look to use every weapon she has, keeping Swiatek guessing about what will come off her racket next — slices, killer topspin, floating moonballs that drop inches from the baseline.
For a while last year, the conventional wisdom was that the only player who could beat Swiatek was Swiatek herself. She has spoken of struggling with her nerves and having to force herself to play to win rather than not to lose.
Earlier in the week, after her quarterfinal win over the 19-year-old American Coco Gauff, Swiatek said she often grows calmer as a Grand Slam tournament moves into the later rounds. The early tightness lifts, and she can take a moment to enjoy what she has accomplished.
A Grand Slam final, though, is another matter, and so is Muchova. The two have played just once, four years ago, before either one was the person or the player she is today. For what it’s worth, Muchova won that match in three sets, on clay, in front of a home crowd in Prague when Swiatek was ranked 95th in the world.
The two have practiced together many times since then, said Swiatek, who, like Barty, counts herself among the Muchova faithful. She often finds herself watching Muchova’s matches.
“She can do anything,” Swiatek said.
Their one match may be a sample size too small for drawing any conclusions, but this stat may be more telling: Muchova has played five matches against players ranked in the top three, and she has won every time.
“It just shows me that I can play against them,” she said Thursday. “I can compete.”
Indeed she can. Her competitors have known that for a while now.