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'Doctors told me I'd never play again', says French Open finalist Karolina Muchova

Czech Republic's Karolina Muchova celebrates winning her semi-final match against Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka. PHOTO: REUTERS

PARIS - Karolina Muchova saved a match point and battled back from 2-5 down in the final set to shock world number two Aryna Sabalenka and reach her maiden Grand Slam final at the French Open on Thursday inspired by being told by doctors “not to do sport anymore”.

Muchova, ranked at 43, defeated the Australian Open winner 7-6 (7/5), 6-7 (5/7), 7-5 in a thrilling three-hour 13-minute match and will face defending champion Iga Swiatek in Saturday’s final.

Unheralded Czech player Muchova, a former top 20 player, has been plagued by a succession of injuries in her career.

An abdominal problem sidelined her for seven months in 2021 while she ended last year’s French Open in a wheelchair after suffering an ankle injury.

Only last September, her ranking was outside the top 200.

“I missed the Australian Open last year, and I was in a pretty bad state health-wise, I was working out a lot to try to get back,” said Muchova who had been a semi-finalist in Melbourne in 2021.

“Some doctors told me, maybe you’ll not do sport anymore. 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.

“Last year, when my ranking dropped, I wanted to feel motivated to play to get back, but I couldn’t somehow.”

However, her confidence was restored by quarter-final runs in Auckland, Dubai and 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.”

The 26-year-old Muchova added Sabalenka to an impressive list of victims in Paris which included eighth seed Maria Sakkari in the first round and 2021 runner-up Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the quarter-final.

For Sabalenka, defeat ended her run of 12 successive match wins at the Slams as she paid a heavy price for 53 unforced errors while the versatile Muchova saved nine of 13 break points.

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Muchova dug deep to save two break points in the fourth game of the opening set.

Her clever angles countered the raw power of Sabalenka, taking her to set point in the 10th game.

‘No politics’

She was unable to convert that opportunity but made no mistake at the second time of asking, a wrong-footing, deep backhand giving her the set via a tiebreak after 68 minutes on court.

It was the first set Sabalenka had dropped at the tournament.

Muchova was 2-0 ahead and sensing a shock triumph in the second set but Sabalenka battled back, overcoming double-faulting on a first set point in the tiebreak to level the semi-final on the second.

Suddenly the momentum was with the Belarusian who broke for 4-2 in the decider after seeing four break points come and go in the second game.

Muchova appeared doomed to wilt under the barrage.

However, she saved a match point in the eighth game before incredibly racing away with the last five games to claim a famous win.

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For Sabalenka, defeat brought the curtain down on a tournament where she spent as much time discussing the war in Ukraine and her links with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko as she did her chances on the court.

She boycotted two press conferences claiming she did not feel “safe” before then revealing that she categorically did not support the ongoing conflict in which Belarus is a close ally of Russia.

Sabalenka also said “I don’t support Lukashenko right now”.

After Thursday’s defeat, she opted not to revisit the controversy.

“I don’t want to talk about politics today. I made all my statements. Let’s just talk about tennis. Give me some rest, please, from politics,” she said. AFP