French Open 2021: Barbora Krejcikova's shining moment is a tribute to her late coach

Before Barbora Krejcikova's beloved coach, former Wimbledon champion Jana Novotna, died of cancer in 2017, she had a few final words for her student: "Just enjoy [yourself] and try and win a Grand Slam."

The unseeded Krejcikova made good on those words Saturday following one of the unlikeliest recent runs to the French Open title. After she defeated Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-1, 2-6, 6-4 in a streaky, often nerve-filled match to earn her first major singles title, she blew a kiss to the sky.

"She's somewhere above looking after me," Krejcikova said during her postmatch news conference. "She wants me to win. She knows what it means to me, and I know what it would mean to her."

In a wildly unpredictable women's draw, stacked with upsets, injuries and withdrawals, it was the 25-year-old Krejcikova who seized the opportunity and did the improbable over the fortnight. She became the sixth straight first-time major champion at the French Open and is the 12th women to win her first Grand Slam title since the start of the 2016 season.

Before Saturday's trophy presentation, Krejcikova said she couldn't believe it multiple times, though it was a moment she and Novotna used to dream about.

Krejcikova had first approached Novotna, the 1998 victor at the All England Club and 24-time winner on the WTA Tour, as an 18-year-old ranked outside of the top 300 and having recently finished her junior career. As the legendary tale goes, Krejcikova and her parents went to Novotna's house in their shared country of the Czech Republic -- uninvited and unannounced -- and asked if Novotna would be interested in helping her. Krejcikova wasn't actually expecting the superstar to agree.

Novotna told her to come hit with her that Thursday. Their bond was instantaneous.

Soon after, Novotna was formally guiding Krejcikova and traveling around the world with her to mostly lower-level ITF tournaments.

Krejcikova said Novotna's death at age 49 was difficult, but she takes solace in their time together, especially during Novotna's final days. She's been supported in the years since by Novotna's family and others who were close to her, including 18-time major champion and fellow Czech-born player Martina Navratilova, who was on hand to present the trophy Saturday.

Saturday's win was something Novotna always wanted for Krejcikova, but the path to the moment was perhaps more winding and unexpected than either could have predicted. Krejcikova has long had success in doubles -- winning two major titles with partner Katerina Siniakova and earning three mixed doubles trophies -- but singles proved different. Krejcikova reached the world No. 1 ranking in doubles more than two years before cracking the top 100 in singles.

It took her 12 tries in qualifying to simply get into a major main draw, as she did during the 2018 French Open, and she didn't record a main-draw win until the Australian Open in 2020. The 2021 French Open marked just her fifth time playing singles at a Grand Slam. She has still never played singles at Wimbledon or the US Open.

Ranked No. 114 entering the 2020 French Open and only getting automatic main-draw entry due to the large number of pandemic-related absences, Krejcikova made the most of the opportunity by advancing to the fourth round in October. She ended the season with a semifinal appearance at Linz.

Her ascent has only continued into the new year. Krejcikova reached the final at Dubai in March and won her first WTA singles title in Strasbourg last month -- a milestone made extra special because Novotna had won there in 1989.

"Every time I go on court, I step out of the court, I always think about her," Krejcikova said earlier this week about what it meant to her. "I'm always wondering what she would tell me after such a run, all [these] winning matches and everything."

Despite her recent success and a career-high ranking of No. 33, Krejcikova arrived in Paris viewed as a doubles specialist. But any of the higher-profile opponents she faced at Roland Garros -- including No. 5 seed Elina Svitolina, 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens, teenage prodigy Coco Gauff and rising star Maria Sakkari -- can confirm that is simply no longer the case.

Krejcikova stunned her more experienced opponents throughout the fortnight with her unorthodox and multifaceted game, filled with variety and an uncanny ability to respond to almost any playing style.

"Overall she has a very good baseline game," Sakkari said after their semifinal match on Thursday. "She has great volleys. Very good serve. I think she's just playing good right now.

"Of course, when players are playing good for that many matches, it's tough to beat them."

Krejcikova is now projected to move up to No. 15 in the world in Monday's rankings.

But just because she can no longer be viewed as just a doubles player, that doesn't mean she isn't still equally dominant there too. She and Siniakova beat Iga Swiatek, the 2020 French Open singles champion, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands in Sunday's doubles final. Krejcikova became the first woman to win both titles at the same French Open since Mary Pierce in 2000 and the 14th woman to achieve the feat at any major in the Open era.

"I'm really thankful to [Siniakova] that she was there, that she was standing next to me," Krejcikova said on Sunday. "It felt a little bit easier than yesterday. I'm just really happy that we have another title and looking forward we [are] going to continue with our cooperation in Wimbledon and also for the Olympics. I hope there's going to be a bright future for us."

Krejcikova acknowledged that her life might be different now as a Grand Slam singles champion and all the attention that follows, but she insisted she wants to remain the same hardworking person she has always been and just enjoy the journey.

That's something she learned from Novotna too.

"She wasn't acting like she won so many titles, that she [was] somebody special," Krejcikova said. "She [was] always acting like a normal person. This is something I really appreciate [about] her. [That] was something that was actually guiding me to be the same. Winning this Grand Slam titles in doubles, now in singles, but still be the same [person].

"She always told me, like, 'Doesn't matter how many titles you're going to win, you always have to come and say hello, please and thank you. It's very important to behave very nice.' I take all of this and I really appreciate, because that's what she was actually doing. She was a great athlete, she was still very humble. She's a big role model. I just want to be [the] same as she was."