This might not have been the French Open women's final matchup most expected, but it will undoubtedly be a career-changing match for Barbora Krejcikova and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova when they face off Saturday in Paris.
Pavlyuchenkova reached a Grand Slam final for the first time in 52 major appearances and is the first Russian woman to play for the singles title since Maria Sharapova in 2014. Krejcikova, from the Czech Republic, is also playing in her first Slam final, following a grueling three-set semifinal against Maria Sakkari.
Our tennis gurus break down the matchup and make their predictions:
What does this matchup of two unlikely finalists say about the state of the women's game?
Simon Cambers: They say anyone can win a Grand Slam title if they have a great two weeks. Krejcikova has beaten Sloane Stephens, Elina Svitolina, Coco Gauff and Maria Sakkari, while Pavlyuchenkova took out Aryna Sabalenka and Victoria Azarenka, so both have shown they deserve to be in the final. Yes, the women's game is more open right now, but that's not a negative.
Bill Connelly: Seems like two things going on at once. First, the women's game is absurdly deep at the moment, and there aren't that many standout players on clay. Tennis Abstract had only two players with a greater than 10% chance of winning the tournament at the beginning. Second ... well, this is what happens when one of the favorites (Simona Halep) gets hurt before the tournament, another (Ashleigh Barty) gets hurt during the tournament, the No. 2 seed (Naomi Osaka) withdraws, etc. It was an incredibly wide-open field, even by French Open standards.
Chris Evert: Women's tennis has depth, and with the pandemic throwing schedules and routines out the window, it's helped to create more of an equal playing field. This was an unusual French with Halep injured, Osaka withdrawing, Barty injured and Serena rusty.
D'Arcy Maine: Players have been saying for the past several years that anyone in the top 100 -- and often beyond -- is capable of beating anyone else on any given day, and we've seen that happen over and over again. When you combine the already unbelievable depth of talent with all of the notable absences and injuries from this tournament, it's creates the conditions for this perfect storm of unexpected finalists (and semifinalists). Bottom line: It shows just how many women there are on tour who don't just have the ability, but also the fearlessness and mental toughness it takes to win seven matches. It's been exciting to watch Pavlyuchenkova and Krejcikova rise to the occasion.
With Pavlyuchenkova finally breaking through to the final in her 52nd major, what does she need to do to win it all?
Cambers: Hold her nerve and deal with the occasion. To me, it's on her racket, she's going to be the aggressor, so if she can control her emotions well enough, she has the power, game and experience to get the job done.
Connelly: Step 1: Don't play 52 finals at once. She's waited so long for this opportunity, but she probably can't win if she tries to do too much.
Step 2: Land your first serve. Pavlyuchenkova doesn't have a dominant serve, but she gets her first serve in as consistently as almost anyone in the game, and that allows her to stay on her front foot. Krejcikova is generally quite hard to break, so she needs to keep up in that regard.
Evert: Pav needs to continue hugging the baseline and taking the ball early, like she's been doing this whole tournament. Dictating the point from the first or second shot. Get Kre on the defensive, throwing in drop shots, outhitting her.
Maine: Keep playing the game that got her here, continue to be aggressive from the baseline and stay as composed as she has no matter what Krejcikova throws her way. And rest assured, as we've learned throughout this fortnight, Krejcikova will throw everything her way.
Krejcikova hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, but after playing a match that lasted well over three hours on Thursday, and with a doubles match on Friday, one has to think there might be some fatigue. With fresher legs entering the match, Pavlyuchenkova should exploit that advantage and send Krejcikova all over the court as much as possible.
While this is her first major final, Pavlyuchenkova certainly has the edge when it comes to experience, and she will need to stay calm and trust her instincts to get the victory.
What is the strategy for Krejcikova against Pavlyuchenkova?
Cambers: Be consistent. Pavlyuchenkova is streaky, so if Krejcikova just does what she's been doing, that might be enough. Her backhand down the line has also been a key shot; if she uses that she can open up the court to the Pavlyuchenkova backhand.
Connelly: Krejcikova has advanced to the finals because of a combination of rally strength and a big bag of tricks. She's more than happy to engage in long rallies, run her opponent around, vary between topspin and slice, throw in some old-school half-lobs and force her opponent to react well to all of it. If rallies are lasting seven-plus points and she's hitting more forehands than Pavlyuchenkova, she's probably winning.
Evert: Taking into consideration Kre's long semi and she might not have a lot of gas left in the tank. Kre has to continue her patience, her composure, mix up the pace, use her slice, break up the rhythm and power of Pav.
Maine: Krejcikova has shown her ability to adjust to her opponent's games very, very quickly, and she will need to continue to do just that -- and utilize her incredible variety just as she has throughout the tournament. She is going to need to use all the tools in her considerable toolbox to secure this win.
Krejcikova had 58 unforced errors and five double faults against Maria Sakkari, and she can't afford to be that sloppy against the far more polished Pavlyuchenkova. She will need to keep her nerves in check and continue to display the mental toughness and never-quit fighting spirit we saw when she saved match point down 3-5 in the decider throughout the entirety of the match.
Whose career would be changed more by a major title: Pavlyuchenkova's or Krejcikova's?
Cambers: Hard to pick one. After 52 Grand Slams and having been an outstanding junior, Pavlyuchenkova would finally have the big title she deserves. For Krejcikova, it could be the start of big things; she looks to have the game for all surfaces.
Connelly: Oh, Pavlyuchenkova for sure. It's almost mind-blowing that, in this age of parity, someone who has spent most of the last decade in the top 30 and reached at least one quarterfinal in every Slam hadn't yet made a Slam final, or even a semifinal. She's been so solid for so long but hadn't broken through, and a Slam title to go with her 12 other singles titles would completely transform her legacy.
Evert: This title will be life-changing for both. They have both been so calm and collected throughout this tournament. I give the edge to Pavly because of experience and a shorter semi.
Maine: Of course a victory would change both of their lives, but for Pavlyuchenkova, who has never lived up to the early expectations after a stellar junior career, it would validate all of her years of hard work and struggles. She's talked openly about the pressure she put on herself and the adjustments she's made recently to give herself the best chance. To win a major after this much time -- 14 years after making her main-draw debut at Wimbledon -- would be the ultimate payoff.
Prediction time: Who wins?
Cambers: Pavlyuchenkova has the power and experience to win it, but there are bound to be some nerves along the way.
Connelly: Krejcikova in three. This is about as even a matchup as you could ever hope to see, but Krejcikova's bag of tricks might be a little fuller at the moment.
Evert: This is a toss-up. To me, it's not about strengths and weaknesses. It's about two women who have never even been close to a final at a Grand Slam and how they react. The intangibles will come into play: Who handles the occasion, the pressure better, who has more gas left in the tank, whose body is not beat up.
Maine: It's hard to pick against Krejcikova, who seemingly can never be counted out, but the experience of Pavlyuchenkova ultimately wins out in three fiercely contested sets.