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Who is Karolina Muchova? Meet the French Open finalist who doctors told to stop playing sport 18 months ago

ROLAND GARROS — Karolina Muchova knows what it is like down at the bottom. And now she is in the French Open final, one win away from the top.

Just eight months ago, the 26-year-old dropped as low as 235 in the world as a string of injuries, predominantly related to a persistent abdominal problem, hampered an obviously talented player who made her break through when, as a qualifier, she knocked out No 12 seed Garbine Muguruza at the 2018 US Open.

She had reached the Australian Open semi-final too and made the top 20 in the world briefly, before spending eight months on the sidelines.

And it was after withdrawing from the grand slam in Melbourne 12 months on from reaching the last four that Muchova had a conversation with a medical professional that could have changed her life.

“I was in a pretty bad state healthy-wise, I was working out a lot to try to get back,” said Muchova.

“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.”

She eventually got back on court in March last year but could not pick up enough wins to maintain her ranking. To try and get back into the swing of regular matches, Muchova dropped down to second and third-tier events she had not played for years.

Instead of Miami, Madrid and Paris, instead she was in Shrewsbury, Glasgow and Angers.

“I was thinking to play some small tournaments, and I did, I tried it, and there I didn’t really feel so great,” Muchova added.

“I wanted to feel like motivated to play to get back, but I couldn’t somehow.”

After that, she used the WTA’s protected ranking system to get into a couple of tour events, the turning point being a run to the quarter-finals in Dubai in February. Those points got her back into the top 100 and then she beat No 8 seed Maria Sakkari in the first round of Roland Garros to open up the draw.

It has been a redemptive run to the final in so many ways for Muchova, who left the tournament last year in tears after rolling her ankle in the third round. Lessons were learned.

“This year I better taped my ankles here from the first round, that’s for sure!” Muchova said.

“But at the end, these things make you stronger and I was struggling a lot last year. I’m here now, so I appreciate it more.”

Czech Republic's Karolina Muchova (L) comforts Belarus' Aryna Sabalenka after her victory during their women's singles semi-final match on day twelve of the Roland-Garros Open tennis tournament at the Court Philippe-Chatrier in Paris on June 8, 2023. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)
Muchova shocked Sabalenka in the semi-finals (Photo: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty)

Having been through so many challenges, facing Muchova now is arguably the biggest challenge in women’s tennis: playing Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros.

Swiatek has only ever lost two matches on the Parisian clay, and won 27. The last woman to beat her was, coincidentally, Muchova’s first-round opponent Maria Sakkari.

But that was two years ago and the Pole’s game looks even more impenetrable now than it did then. This is Swiatek’s 16th clay-court tournament as a professional and she has reached the final in nine of them. Her title-winning hit rate on this surface is only bettered by Margaret Court, Steffi Graf and Chris Evert, who will be in attendance to present the trophy on Sunday.

Former world No 1 Kim Clijsters will be in the stadium too, having played in the legends event at Roland Garros.

“It is incredible what Iga is doing,” she said.

“But it also doesn’t surprise me as I have got to know her a little bit, her mindset, how open she is to absorbing information from past champions, looking at male tennis players.

“She is just so open to learn about the tennis aspect of it all – plus the mental side of it.

“I love that about her. I think that is one of the reasons why she is going to be at the top of our sport for many years to come. She is so ready to go from the first point.

“An example that a lot of women can take from her is her intensity is there for every shot – she demands very high quality all of the time. She doesn’t have those ups and downs.”

Muchova admits she will not be favourite, and there is a statistic to suggest she can spring a surprise. In her five matches against players ranked in the top three, she has never lost. She beat Ash Barty in Australia, Naomi Osaka in Madrid, Maria Sakkari here last year and most recently Aryna Sabalenka, who served for the match before crumbling under the pressure on Thursday.

“It just shows me that I can play against them. I can compete, and obviously the matches are super close,” Muchova said.

“Even today, match ball down, you really never know if I win or lose, but it’s great to know that I have the chance to win and I win against the top players, and that for sure boost my confidence.”

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