Aryna Sabalenka’s controversial French Open ended in a sudden and catastrophic meltdown as she lost 20 of the last 24 points in her semi-final against unseeded Karolina Muchova.
The collapse began after Sabalenka had held match point, with Muchova serving at 2-5, 30-40 in the deciding set. The contest, it appeared, was all but done. But Muchova fended off the danger with a strong serve-forehand combination, and then Sabalenka’s game disintegrated to the point where she couldn’t put a ball in court.
What a way for Sabalenka’s tournament – which has been full of political tension – to end. Posting on social media, the 1980s legend Pam Shriver asked “Could this [off-court turmoil] have contributed? The collapse indicated not enough in reserves for Sabalenka.”
To recap, Sabalenka – who is Belarusian – faced close questioning over her stance on Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, especially from a Ukrainian journalist who is a refugee from occupied Luhansk.
Despite being the world No2 and one of the leading favourites for this event, Sabalenka then withdrew from normal media duties after her third- and fourth-round matches, explaining that she didn’t “feel safe” in the interview room.
She ended the press-conference blackout after her quarter-final win over Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina, and surprised many observers by saying that she did not support her president Alexander Lukashenko – someone she has posed for photographs with in the past – over Belarus’s involvement in the war.
Asked if she had felt exhausted by the events of the past fortnight – which she previously admitted had left her unable to sleep – Sabalenka replied “Yeah, I’m really exhausted right now. But I think it’s only because I lost this match, and it’s very tough, tough match for me to lose. But I think it’s normal to feel exhausted after two weeks of playing non-stop.”
She also suggested that the turning point hadn’t been her own failure to convert at 5-2, but the superb returning that Muchova produced in the following game. “After that game she kind of stepped in and started playing a little bit more aggressive, and I kind of lost my rhythm. Yeah, I wasn’t there.”
Sabalenka’s unexpected exit ran contrary to the dominant narrative at the top of the WTA, where strength and athleticism have been the deciding factors of late. These qualities helped Sabalenka to win January’s Australian Open, and it seemed as if they were about to carry her to another major final.
Muchova – who is a late developer at 26 – is a very different sort of player. The underdog appeared to be channelling the spirit of Ashleigh Barty, the 2021 champion here, as she mixed slice backhands with a penetrating and well-aimed serve.
The contrast of styles with Sabalenka’s route-one power game created the best match of the tournament to date. The final will have a tough act to follow.
In the pivotal moments after Sabalenka’s match point slipped away, her feet stopped moving and her face turned an interesting shade of puce. This is the sort of meltdown that she used to be notorious for, but we thought she had moved beyond.
She changed her racket twice in the final moments, searching desperately for some control over the ball. But her brain was too scrambled to make the necessary adjustments. Although she had a couple of game points at 5-5, moving to 40-15 on her own serve, she then hit back-to-back double-faults to usher Muchova towards the final, decisive break.
A moment or two later, Sabalenka sprayed yet another forehand wide and Muchova was home by a 7-6, 6-7, 7-5 scoreline.
“I don’t really know what happened,” Muchova told on-court interviewer Mats Wilander, to the cheers of a delighted crowd. “I just tried to keep fighting and it worked.”
Deft and skilful as she is, Muchova will start as an equally heavy underdog against Iga Swiatek – the defending champion, who swept past Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-2, 7-6 – in Saturday’s final.