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French Open 2023 semi-final: Karolina Muchova v Aryna Sabalenka – live | French Open 2023

French Open 2023 semi-final: Karolina Muchova v Aryna Sabalenka – live | French Open 2023

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Muchova 7-6(5) (5)6-7 2-5 Sabalenka* Sabalenka didn’t play Wimbledon last year because Belarusians – and, of course, Russians – were banned. So she went to Florida and got herself fitter, work that’s paying for itself now. At 30-all she’s still got the strength to clobber groundstrokes, the two contacting the net-cord three times between them, before a sensational backhand, oblique and breaking the sideline, ends the longest point of the match, then an ace follows and Sabalenka is a game away!

Aryna Sabalenka is a game away from Saturday’s final. Photograph: Robert Prange/Getty Images

Muchova* 7-6(5) (5)6-7 2-4 Sabalenka Muchova badly needs a first serve here because make no mistake, Sabalenka is a killer who’ll have noted her fatigue. Naturally, she sends a decent delivery out wide … only to overhit her clean-up! Is she flagging? Is this the beginning of the end? Er, no mate, Sabalenka makes consecutive errors, the second a really tame backhand that floats long; er maybe, she hits a big forehand which yields a moon ball that’s nowhere near anywhere; 30-all. So Muchova responds with her sixth ace – it’s been there almost every time she’s really needed it – only for Sabalenka to make deuce by punishing a pair of forehands, then advantage via backhand return and backhand winner. Magnificent behaviour, raising break point – she’s 3/11, Muchova 3/3 – and facing a second serve, she launches herself into the rally and her opponent can’t respond! Might that be the decisive blow? Muchova looks really tired now.

Muchova 7-6(5) (5)6-7 2-3 Sabalenka* Muchova curls a forehand winner cross-court for 0-15, then Sabalenka nets a forehand and has momentum shifted again? 0-30! Er no, three consecutive errors from Muchova make 30-40 and is she tiring? She can be excused for it if she is, flexing legs while waiting to receive, but the rejuvenating power of a double for deuce means she’s soon hammering a forehand return … which Sabalenka sends back at her with interest for a clean winner, quickly securing the game thereafter. She looks to be lasting the better, but the line between success and failure is so thin it’s impossible to say with any certainty who’ll win this.

Karolina Muchova powers a forehand winner.
Karolina Muchova powers a forehand winner. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Muchova* 7-6(5) (5)6-7 2-2 Sabalenka No doubt there’ll be plenty on the tour wondering if they can do what Muchova’s doing, but for it to work, it requires precision, power, composure and nerve, so all the best with that. Anyroad up, at 15-all Sabalenka opens the space for a forehand winner only to overhit it – Chrissy notes that she doesn’t need to go for lines – especially as, given the situation, she’s likely to pull things a little. We get to 30-all, though, then on game point Muchova plays a lush drop, and that’s enough for final-set parity.

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Muchova 7-6(5) (5)6-7 1-2 Sabalenka* “Oh my word!” yells Chrissy when, at 30-0, Muchova is dragged over to the forehand side, responding with a leaping, stretching forehand winner down the line. “They’re motivating each other, bringing each other’s best games out … just wonderful to watch.” And she should know – on which point do check out BBC’s God of Tennis series, which is a lot of fun. One of the things I most loved was her explaining that she just responds well to pressure – imagine being able to say that of yourself – while, back in the present, Sabalenka holds to 15. There’s still nary a Rizla blue in it,but she looks the better player at the moment.

Muchova* 7-6(5) (5)6-7 1-1 Sabalenka Now then. Two errors from Muchova – prompted by good play by Sabalenka – give the favourite a sniff, and a forehand winner, whipped from centre to corner, cross-court, raise three break points. You know, though, that Muchocva won’t get feart, and she saves two then faults; Sabalenka steps in. So Muchova tries a kicker down the middle, the return lands on the chalk, is backed up with a fine forehand … and look at that! A gorgeous forehand down the line makes deuce and Muchova has serious moxie. Oh yes she does! Sabalenka earns advantage with a jazzer of a forehand, backpeddling having invited her opponent to the net … so that opponent lamps an ace down the middle … then with advantage of her own, does it again! “Staggeringly good” says our commentator, and he’s right. Karolina Muchova is forreal.

Muchova 7-6(5) (5)6-7 0-1 Sabalenka* It’s silly, but I love that both sets finished 7-6(5) because it illustrates just how close this match has been. Before this game, Sabalenka had won one more point than Muchova and at 40-15 looks to be forging ahead in the match, but a fine get forces her to spin 360, hitting an extra ball – she’s laughing as she does it – then Muchova puts a way a volley to give her something about which to think. Not for long, she quickly closes out, and now Muchova must respond, but under the pressure of being behind.

Aryna Sabalenka wins the second set 7-5(5) to force a decider against Karolina Muchova!

Sabalenka guzzles a second serve, slamming a backhand cross-court, then a big forehand sets up the overhead and though she manages to direct it at her opponent, it’s good enough because Muchova nets. Another fantastic set of glorious tennis is over … now here comes another! Don’t mind if we do!

Aryna Sabalenka wins the second set!
Aryna Sabalenka wins the second set! Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

Muchova 7-6(5) 6-6 (5-6) Sabalenka Oh Saba! Oh man! She wins her first point but then up 6-4, she sends down a double! One go left, but on the Muchova serve…

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Muchova 7-6(5) 6-6 (4-5) Sabalenka But then Sabalenka overhits a forehand – that needed more spin so might’ve been nerves – then Muchova dumps another backhand! Sabalenka has two serves to make it 1-1…

Muchova 7-6(5) 6-6 (2-4) Sabalenka You know what? As soon as this match is finished, we get to watch another! It’s not a bad old life (sometimes). Muchova, though, is disappointed to stick a nondescript backhand into the net, and it makes me double-take because of how rarely that’s happened previously, and next point Sabalenka rocks back and carts a luscious forehand into the corner for the mini-break, consolidated with a booming serve. The decider the match – and more importantly we – deserve looks imminent.

Muchova 7-6(5) 6-6 Sabalenka* A bazzing first point of the game, Sabalenka playing a monster and Muchova forcing her to hit four more balls than she might’ve done. She holds to love, though – game point also features a variety of gets before falling to her – and we’ve got ourselves another breaker. Can Muchova stay as calm during it as she did during the first, now the final is within reach?

“It’s unkind to call Sabalenka a ‘mindless ball basher’ (in the style of say Tsonga or Berdych in times gone by),” returns James Wilson, “but Muchova rather makes her look like that today with her brilliance. Sablenka has taken major strides to fix her serve and just hammer the ball off both sides but she’s looking back to what she was this time last year – all the shots, but little variety and patience. Credit to Muchova for forcing her to revert to her 2022 vintage. A long way to go though still.”

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Yup, it feels like she’s turned up assuming that if she does what she’s been doing she’ll win, rather than gameplanning for what Muchova might do. She’s played lots of pressure=points well though.

Muchova* 7-6(5) 6-5 Sabalenka Muchova has served superbly today – she’s done everything superbly – and she holds to 15, forcing Sabalenka to serve to stay in the tournament once again. P-R-E-S-S-U-R-E.

Muchova 7-6(5) 5-5 Sabalenka* Muchova does make 0-15, but Sabalenka unleashes from mid-court until her opponent can’t take any more, then disburses a violent ace out wide for 40-15 … then another down the T for 5-5! She backs herself now, which makes the quality of Muchova’s play even more impressive.

Muchova* 7-6(5) 5-4 Sabalenka Yeah, about me saying momentum had switched; perhaps not. A straightforward hold for Muchova, and now I’m wondering if we’ll look back at today as the time a new force in the game announced itself. Sabalenka must now serve to stay in the competition.

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Muchova 7-6(5) 4-4 Sabalenka* I said just a second ago that no one plays perfectly for an entire match, but Muchova is playing this match perfectly, drawing Sabalenka to the net, where she misses a volley for 15-40, then taking pace off the ball before upping it when she’s ready, forcing the error! This is intense, compelling, affirming stuff.

“There’s a flies like a buatterfly, stings like a bee weak gag in here somewhere, Muchova deriving from the Slavonic word for ‘house fly’ – Mucha/Muha. Aren’t flies known for how quickly they can, well, fly? Their aeronautical design via nature is pretty sweet. A bit like Karolina’s game (I’ll get my coat).”

I believe the genus was named after her.

Karolina Muchova plays a volley return
Karolina Muchova breaks the number two seed again in this second set. Photograph: Christophe Ena/AP

Muchova* 7-6(5) 3-4 Sabalenka Yup, she has a go, but with her back half-turned as she digs out a backhand from the corner, Muchova sneaks to the net in order to despatch a volley. Sabalenka, though, makes 15-all with a drop that just about clambers over the net, and when her opponent guides an approach wide, she’s two points from a break. And, though, Muchova then levels the game, a barrage of backhands give her 30-40 … except, and yet again, Muchova finds her best gear when she needs to, working her way to the net for a put-away. Problem being she needs to do likewise immediately afterwards because she sends a forehand long, and this time Sabalenka’s power is too much, a sensational backhand return, annihilated cross-court, setting up a backhand winner. That’s the break, and I wonder if momentum has shifted here, not because Muchova isn’t playing well – she is – but because no one can play perfectly for an entire match and the world no2 has turned it up.

Muchova 7-6(5) 3-3 Sabalenka* Sabalenka has stepped it up here, landing a lot of first serves and making the match the one she wants to play rather than the one Muchova is forcing her to play. She holds to 15, sealing the deal with a lovely backhand caressed down the line, and I’d expect her to attack the serve in the next game.

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Muchova* 7-6(5) 3-2 Sabalenka Sabalenka wallops a forehand to get 30-15, so Muchova slams an ace down the middle and quickly closes out.

Aryna Sabalenka celebrates winning a point
Aryna Sabalenka levels the set with a break. Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images

Muchova 7-6(5) 2-2 Sabalenka* I talk about this a lot, but we may have reached the mythical stage of both players playing well at the same time – deploying contrasting yet complementary styles too. Sabalenka makes 40-0 in typical style, but out of nowhere Muchova fights back to deuce, hitting through her in the process. From there, though, she closes out, and this is the best match I’ve seen in absolutely tiiiiiiiime.

Muchova* 7-6(5) 2-1 Sabalenka So she tries a drop, it works, and she makes 0-15 … so Muchova redeems the situation with an ace down the T. Her timing today has been faultless, but Saba isn’t who she is for no reason and her forehand earns her the next two points for 15-40. Muchova, though, responds with a telling drop, only for two more forehands, a return and a winner, restoring parity in set two. A year ago, I’m not sure Sabalenka is capable of that, but she’s a very serious proposition nowadays.

Muchova 7-6(5) 2-0 Sabalenka* Muchova punishes a weak second serve for 15-all, then Sabalenka sends a backhand long.As Chrissy notes, she’s answering every question she’s asked, wearing the power and using her lightness of foot to keep her opponent off balance. And forcing another error, she’s got 15-40, then sticks a forehand return onto the line, and Sabalenka can’t respond! Mucxhova leads by a set and a break, and suddenly the no2 seed looks bereft of ideas!

Muchova* 7-6(5) 1-0 Sabalenka That was so impressive from Muchova. Obviously there’s the skill required to play like that, along with the confidence to try things, but more than anything it’s the temperament that’s striking – at no point did she get tight. And she holds to love, closing the game with a serve-volley point, stretching for a lovely, controlled putaway.

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Muchova 7-6(5) Sabalenka Sabalenka comes in – Muchova’s tactics have forced her to change her own – and when she goes long, she’s set-point down, though on her own serve. And Muchova plays it brilliantly, stretching to loop a return close to the line – intentionally – before a backhand cross-court opens a backhand down the line, a clean winner that is a fitting end to a fantastic set (of tennis). The underdog leads, and the no2 seed has some thinking to do!

Aryna Sabalenka
This wasn’t in the script for Aryna Sabalenka. Photograph: Javier García/Shutterstock

Muchova 6-6 Sabalenka (5-5) Sabalenka hits the line with a second serve, then does likewise with the forehand that’s behind it, and when she cracks a forehand just wide, I’ve not a clue who’s going to shade this.

Muchova 6-6 Sabalenka (4-3) Immediately, Muchova snaffles a mini-break, a fine forehand return, cross-court and punkt into the corner, eliciting the error. We then progress to 3-2, a monstrous forehand then another good one arranging a volley for 4-2 – Muchova is winning more points behind her second serve than her first, which is ridiculous, especially against this opponent – but then Sabelnka plays a nice approach, puts a nervy overhead onto the line, and we’re back on serve.

Muchova* 6-6 Sabalenka Oooh yeah! Muchova comes in and this time Sabalenka is ready for her, unleashing a forehand pass that leaves burn marks on my screen. No matter, a gorgeous backhand down the line makes 15-all – I love the way Muchova plays these shots, almost ushering the ball rather than hitting it because her footwork and timing are so good – and a drop soon gives her 40-15, Sabalenka marooned behind the baseline. So next point she batters away then comes in … only to net her volley, and we’ve got ourselves the breaker we and both players deserve.

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Muchova 5-6 Sabalenka* Breaking back like that will have given Sabalenka even more confidence, but at 30-15 Muchove plays a drop-winner then, second-best in the next point, hoists a momentum-switching lob only to hit the top of the net when poised to make 30-all. That was a thrilling rally but, and we looks ready for another when Muchova sends a lovely return down the line, but this time it’s Sabalenka who guides from behind her and whence it came – Muchova slips, which tells you how little she was expecting that ball, there, though she wouldn’t have got it in any case.

Sabalenka plays a backhand return.
Sabalenka breaks Muchova, and we’re back on serve. Photograph: Clive Mason/Getty Images

Muchova* 5-5 Sabalenka Sabalenka makes 0-15 then hammers away from the back, except right as 0-30 looks imminent, Muchova comes in and despatches a terrific backhand volley before guiding a forehand into the corner for 30-15 – in comms, the think this is Federer-liked. Sabalenka, though, doesn’t panic, coming in so Muchova couldn’t to paste a forehand winner of her own, but again the Czech responds, a fine serve backed up with a forehand which raises set point! So Sabalenka ups the power, disbursing further mighty forehands for deuce, then again so she can clean up at the net, and now she has a chance to break back! Again, Muchova finds a first serve, but this time Sabalenka spanks a return close to the line, eliciting the error, and that is a champion’s behaviour. This is a really enjoyable tussle, engaging brain as well as heart.

Muchova 5-4 Sabalenka* More power off from Muchova and Sabalenka, coming in, botches her putaway at the net. She does make 15-all, but now Muchova approaches the net, inviting the pass, and Sabalenka can’t; then, from 15-30, she comes in again, twice, and both times finishes points, one with a forehand volley and one with a flowing forehands into the corner, both times having opened the court with clever angles, and that’s the break! Muchova will now serve for the first set!

Muchova* 4-4 Sabalenka Sabalenka gets to 0-15 and then smokes a return down the line; Muchova responds well, finding a really good length, but then whams a forehand into tape for 0-30. She needs to steady here and does, making 30-all in short order, and looks to be enjoying the contest confident that she belongs; again, she finds great length, it prompts Sabalenka to drop a little short, and she comes in to stroke a forehand winner into the corner then quickly closes out. This is an absorbing contest, and if it comes down to a few points in a breaker, Muchova has a serious chance of causing an upset.

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Muchova 3-4 Sabalenka* Has anyone ever hit the ball harder than Sabalenka? There’s Serena, obviously, and in the game now Rybakina and Ostapenko. But I’m not sure any of them go as hard and as flat as often. But hang on, Muchova digs one out from behind her in the backhand corner, forcing Sabalenka to play another shot, and her overhead goes out! 30-all and another mini-chance, quickly extinguished with a service winner and a netted volley running in. However, prior to missing the putaway, Muchova played an excellent point and will be pretty happy with how things are going.

Muchova* 3-3 Sabalenka Muchova is doing a pretty good job of landing her first serve and Sabalenka hasn’t quite found her timing on the return yet. She gets to 40-0 and even when she nets a slice, Chrissy praises her for changing the pace, then Saba slaps into the net and we’re back level. This is shaping up into a decent contest.

Karolina Muchova plays a backhand to hold her serve in the first set.
Karolina Muchova plays a backhand to hold her serve in the first set. Photograph: Julian Finney/Getty Images

Muchova 2-3 Sabalenka* Sabalenka thrashes away as Muchova scurries and slides to hither and yon, doing a good job without ever looking likely to threaten the serve. A hold to 15, and the no2 seed looks extremely imposing.

Muchova* 2-2 Sabalenka Yup, Muchova plans to mix things up, serve-volleying on the first point of the game – Sabalenka nets her return – before caning an ace down the T for 30-0. She does then go wide with an inside-out forehand, but a cunningly-placed forehand, looping into the corner, takes her close to 2-2 … then Sabalenka collars her second serve, humping a winner cross-court for 40-30. She’ll have known she needs to land her first effort if she’s to compete here – when Sabalenka has a go at another, she hits long and that’s deuce – but even when she does, to the forehand, the ball comes scorches straight back past her, raising the first break point of the match. Muchova, though, responds well, sending down another ace … only to net on the forehand immediately afterwards … only to respond well again, targeting the backhand to come in which works nicely. Deuce it is, Muchova sends to the backhand corner and spiriting a fine flick cross-court with soft wrists and hands – Sabalenka’s volley falls wide, just – then closes out. On the one hand, she won’t want many tight holds like that but, on the other, she’ll feel good that she saw it out.

Muchova 1-2 Sabalenka* Muchova gets to 30-all and in the circumstances this is a chance. Muchova, as we thought she might, slows down the pace of things, forcing Sabalenka to generate her own power – if she wants to. Which she doesn’t – instead she comes in slices a gorgeous drop, then on game-point monsters consecutive forehands, illustrating the conundrum of facing her perfectly: how do you beat someone who can hit it harder than you, who also has a better touch than you?

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Muchova* 1-1 Sabalenka A solid start from Muchova,b ut then at 40-15 Sabalenka runs in and from mid-court slices a lovely backhand winner cross-court to the forehand corner. She’s playing with almost indecent confidence, but when she spanks a forehand from the back it drops fractionally long and Muchova is on the board. Meantime, Chrissy notes that Saba is kinder to herself now, allowing points she doesn’t win to pass without chastising her behaviour. On which point, to learn how to practise self-compassion – and other helpful behaviours – check out the work of Dr Shefali Tsabary.

Muchova 0-1 Sabalenka* (*denotes server) I love the simplicity of Sabalenka’s serve – there’s so little movement, it’s just toss, set, bend, whack. She starts nicely too, a big topspin forehand winner giving her 40-15 and the game sealed with an ace.

Aryna Sabalenka holds in the first game of the semi-final.
Aryna Sabalenka holds in the first game of the semi-final. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

And … play.

Absolute sake dept: Chatrier, though buzzing, is a long way off full. What is wrong with people?

Sabalenka goes to No1 in the world if she wins the competition or if Swiatek loses today. She’s yet to lose a set in the competition, and her last two wins, over Sloane Stephens and Elina Svitolina, were extremely impressive.

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As I alluded to earlier, Muchova recently had seven months off with an abdominal injury, so being out there now must be gravy – Hawksmoor’s bone marrow gravy, no less.

Muchova wins the toss and, as per the present vogue, opts to receive. The idea is, I imagine, to put an opponent under pressure while settling oneself.

The wind’s kicking up a little which might help Muchova – she’ll be looking for points of difference – but on the other hand it might help Sabalenka, who can hit either with it or through it.

Here come our players!

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What I will say is that there’s more chance Muchova beats Sabalenka than Haddad Maia beats Swiatek, partly because Sabalenka is still Sabalenka – her new-found confidence isn’t yet fully entrenched – but also because Muchova has more to offer that might cause trouble. Haddad Maia has nice hands and serious power, I just don’t think she’s enough of either to see off Swiatek.

Watching a further interview with Muchova, she won’t share her tactics but does seem to fancy herself. My guess is she tries to keep Sabalenka moving so that she can’t plant her feet and whack, which’ll mean drops, lobs, balls to the corners and variations of pace, spin and angle.

Wow. Wow wow wow wow.

We see some VT of Muchova, who says reaching the final in Rome a couple of weeks ago – she lost to Badosa – and though she’s the kind of person who wants everything now, she’s happy to have made the semi here eventually but of course still wants more.

I’m not sure Casper Ruud will win the men’s competition, but he absolutely strolls the best tan-line contest.

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casper ruud's headband has given him a tan-line
Photograph: Eurosport

Preamble

Salut! And welcome to Roland-Garros 2023 – day 12!

I like these calm little moments before the storm. It reminds me of Beethoven. Can you hear it? It’s like, when you put your head to the grass. You can hear it growing. You can hear the insects, bzzzz … Do you like Beethoven?

So said Norman Stansfield in Léon and, though he wasn’t talking about our women’s semi-final matches – probably – he might’ve been. Because on the face of things, there’s no tension here as we know exactly what’s going to happen: Aryna Sabaklenka blazes through Karolína Muchová and Iga Swiatek devastates Beatriz Haddad Maia – the kind of light work best soundtracked by Mozart – then the two winners convene on Saturday for an absolute Brahms of a final.

But sport – and women’s tennis in particular – tend not to work that way. After a miserable time with injury, Muchová will feel that her time is now, and knows that not long ago, Sabalenka was a fragile thwacker liable to falter under pressure. If she plays to her maximum, she’ll fancy her chances of reminding her reborn opponent exactly who she used used to be.

Haddad Maia is a not dissimilar tigela de moqueca, a powerful hitter with hands and belief at her physical peak. It’s difficult to discomfit Swiatek, especially on clay, but the Brazilian is here because she’s hit purple patches in each of her last two matches, and she can find that level today, she’s a problem.

Most likely, of course, the favourites do enough – though neither has been seriously tested in reaching this stage. Swiatek, the defending champion, the reigning US Open champion and the world No 1, is a generational talent with disquieting equanimity and no weaknesses. Real talk, she seems impregnable on clay … except Sabalenka is in majestically murderous form, assaulting the ball like it just called her mum a rude word and fortified, since winning the Australian Open, with all the confidence that eluded her in the years prior to that.

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Or, put another way, this going to be good … and what comes next might be even better. On y va!

Play: 3pm local, 2pm BST



Daniel Harris

Published: 2023-06-08 15:44:16

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