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The natural and the No. 1 will face off in the French Open women’s final

Iga Swiatek (left) is a three-time Grand Slam champion while Karolina Muchova is contesting her first Slam final. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS – There is a woman in professional tennis for whom the very mention of her name has long sparked a wistfulness among her fellow players, current and past.

They rave about her buttery smooth strokes, her deceptive power, that sublime balance, the sculpted physique and her seemingly effortless movement.

If Karolina Muchova can stay healthy, they say, watch out.

The 26-year-old from the Czech Republic will take on Iga Swiatek, the world No. 1, in the French Open final on Saturday after upsetting Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka 7-6 (7-5), 6-7 (5-7), 7-5 on Thursday.

Every bit of Muchova’s repertoire was there on a steamy afternoon at Roland Garros.

Lunging returns that floated down just inside the baseline. Banging forehands followed by dying drop shots. The ability to filet the hardest of Sabalenka’s strong forehands with cutting volleys. She needed them all – and some guts, too.

Down a match point while serving at 2-5 in the deciding set, Muchova saved her tournament with a crisp forehand down the line and won 20 of the final 24 points to reach her first Grand Slam final.

“She always plays great tennis,” said Sabalenka. “It’s kind of a little bit tricky to build a point against her.”

A Slam final is where so many have thought Muchova – a late-ish bloomer who began battling back and knee injuries in her late teens – should have been for so long.

She overcame those issues to make the 2019 Wimbledon quarter-finals of and the 2021 Australian Open semi-finals, stunning world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty – an admittedly massive Muchova fan.

But another series of nagging injuries, including a sprained ankle just as she was catching fire in the third round of the 2022 French Open, sent Muchova spiralling to world No. 235.

“Many lows, from one injury to another,” she said.

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

But things happen quickly in tennis. She entered this French Open ranked 43rd, beat eighth-seeded Maria Sakkari of Greece in the first round and dropped just one set in her first five matches.

Just like that, she was playing the tightest of third sets in front of 15,000 people in a Slam semi-final. She could hear the crowd chanting her name as she tried to stay calm.

“It was crazy out there,” she said.

It may very well get crazy once more on Saturday against Swiatek, who won this tournament in 2020 and 2022 and has clinched 13 consecutive matches at Roland Garros.

The Pole, who turned 22 last week, has enjoyed a career that has been the polar opposite of Muchova’s.

She won her first Slam title when she was 19 years old, and became the world No. 1 at 20 in April 2022.

And while Swiatek initially played the kind of varied, all-court style that has garnered Muchova praise from tennis aesthetes, she largely abandoned it early in 2022 in favour of a simpler, more aggressive approach built around taking every opportunity to blast her forehand.

She can be downright lethal, finishing so many sets with scores of 6-0 (a “bagel” in tennis parlance) or 6-1 (a “breadstick”) that Twitter often lights up with chatter about “Iga’s Bakery”.

Swiatek was less than clinical on Thursday in her 6-2, 7-6 (9-7) win over Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia. Uncharacteristically, she had more unforced errors than winners – 26-25.

But there was no panic, she felt, saying: “I can really use my power on clay and even make it physical if I need to.”

If contrasts in styles are the not-so-secret sauce of great matchups, then the final between Muchova and Swiatek holds the potential to be special.

Swiatek will look to dig in and bang away. Muchova will look to use every weapon she has – slices, killer topspin, floating moonballs that drop inches from the baseline.

The two have played just once, four years ago. Muchova won that match in three sets, on the clay in Prague.

They have practised together many times since, and Swiatek counts herself among the Muchova faithful.

“She can do anything,” she said.

There is one stat that may be telling – Muchova has played five matches against players ranked in the top three, and she has won every time.

“It just shows me that I can play against them,” she said. “I can compete.”

Indeed she can. Her competitors have known that for a while now. NYTIMES, REUTERS