By Ben Morse, CNN
(CNN) — On one side of the net will be a player whose career was in jeopardy just last year through injuries. On the other side will be the most in-form player in tennis looking for her third French Open title.
First to qualify for the final was Iga Świątek, the world No. 1 and the reigning champion at Roland Garros. She has become almost unbeatable on clay courts, and is looking to cement her status at the top of women’s tennis.
And she was followed by Karolína Muchová, an unlikely finalist playing in her first grand slam final who was told by some doctors last year that her injuries were so severe her tennis career might have been over.
The pair have only met once before, Muchová beating Świątek at the 2019 Prague Open. But a lot has changed since then. Muchová has had to overcome countless battles with injuries while Świątek has skyrocketed to become a three-time grand slam winner.
Facing Świątek on clay at the moment is a daunting task for anyone – her dominance at the French Open has been likened to that of Rafael Nadal who won the grand slam 14 times.
But it was revealed to Muchová in her press conference that she was undefeated in previous encounters against the world No.1, No.2 and No.3 a statistic she says she can take confidence from.
“I don’t think I will be the favorite. It’s nice. I didn’t really even know about this statistic, if I say like that,” she said.
Whether it be a now-healthy player finally getting her opportunity to shine or her opponent looking to cement her name as one of tennis’ most dominant players, Court Philippe Chatrier is sure to see some fireworks.
Comeback with a flourish
Muchová has long been a favorite of tennis purists. Her all-round skillset, from power and precision to accuracy and athleticism, means she is close to the full package.
However, after a burgeoning beginning to her career, including a semifinal berth at the 2021 Australian Open, injuries blighted the Czech’s progress.
Having seemingly had all potential options open to her in the tennis world, the door appeared to slam shut with withdrawals and time spent in rehab. She dropped out of the top 100 in the world rankings and she said she received the news no professional athlete wants to hear. “Some doctors told me: ‘Maybe you’ll not do sport anymore,’” she recounted to reporters.
But Muchová never lost hope. She has slowly climbed back to her best and has enjoyed a remarkable run at this year’s French Open.
She beat No. 8 seed Maria Sakkari in the first round before beating 2020 semifinalist, Nadia Podoroska, in the second round. The 26-year-old then blitzed through her next three matches without dropping a set, overcoming No. 27 seed Irina-Camelia Begu, Elina Avanesyan and 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
She saved her most impressive performance for the semifinal though. Down 2-5 and facing match point against world No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka, Muchová was able to stave off the danger, win five games in a row to stun the Belarusian and reach her debut major final.
With a maiden grand slam in her sights, Muchová was in a sanguine mood after the victory over Sabalenka, making sure to highlight the struggles which makes her success in Paris all the more special for her.
“There has been many moments, many lows, I would say, from one injury to another,” Muchová – who is projected to return to the top 20 in the world rankings after the tournament – told reporters. “For sure when I missed Australian Open last year, and I was in a pretty bad state healthy-wise, I was working out a lot to try to get back.
“But I always kept it kind of positive in my mind and tried to work and do all the exercises to be able to come back. Obviously, as well last year, when my ranking dropped and I was thinking, you know, to play some small tournaments, and I did, I tried it, and there I didn’t really feel so great. I wanted to feel like motivated to play to get back, but I couldn’t somehow.
“So I knew for this year I had few more special rankings left. I was telling myself I will see how it’s going to be after Indian Wells, because that was my last special ranking there. You know, I played great in Dubai, I did great in Indian Wells, I was feeling pretty fine health-wise.
“It’s up-and-downs in life all the time. Now I’m enjoying that I’m on the upper part now.”
Improvement and dominance
Świątek has been here before. In the final, with just a victory between her and a French Open title, this is familiar territory for the Pole.
Although she’s familiar with the situation, Świątek said a lot had changed since her first French Open title three years ago.
“Oh, my God. Yes, for sure I feel like I’m a better player,” the 22-year-old said when asked if she considered herself a better player from the one who won her debut grand slam in 2020 at Roland Garros.
“Improvement I feel like is everywhere, so I can’t really say. Everywhere, like tennis-wise, mentally, tactically, physically, just having the experience, everything. So, yeah, my whole life basically.”
Once again, Świątek has looked almost unstoppable in Paris. She has not dropped a set on her way to the final, her stiffest test coming against No. 14 seed Beatriz Haddad Maia where she was forced to a second set tie break in which she eventually prevailed.
Her semifinal victory and Sabalenka’s defeat ensured she will remain atop the world rankings whatever the result.
Świątek revealed that she was familiar with Muchová’s game because she had watched her matches and played her in practice many times since 2019.
With the opportunity to solidify as one of the most dominant prospects in all of sports, just like Nadal did at the same venue on the men’s side of tennis, Świątek said the Spaniard’s success was never a motivating factor for her.
“I wouldn’t say that kind of motivation, it’s my style. I’m more of a person who just try to do her best every day and hope for the best,” she told reporters.
“But, no, like Rafa, what he did and what he’s still doing, it’s pretty amazing. I never kind of knew that it’s going to be possible for me. So it was totally out of my reach, if I can say that. And still he played so well so many years, I don’t know if it’s going to be possible for me.
“But I just try to compete, keep it cool year by year and just do everything step by step. So I wasn’t really thinking that.”
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