French Open: Krejcikova here to stay as doubles star learns to love singles scene

By Sports Desk June 11, 2021

Barbora Krejcikova insists she belongs at the highest level of women's tennis as the surprise singles finalist attempts to achieve a French Open feat last accomplished 21 years ago.

France's own Mary Pierce was the most recent player to clinch singles and doubles titles in the same year at Roland Garros, beating Conchita Martinez in the 2000 singles final and teaming up with Martina Hingis to make it a twin trophy success.

On Saturday, Krejcikova can complete the first leg of her weekend's objective as she battles to become only the second woman playing under a Czech flag to triumph in singles at the Paris clay-court grand slam in the Open Era, after Hana Mandlikova's 1981 victory.

Martina Navratilova won the French Open title twice, in 1982 and 1984, but by that stage she was representing the United States, having previously been a runner-up for Czechoslovakia in 1975.

A world-class doubles star, Krejcikova has rocketed up the singles rankings in the past 18 months, having ended 2019 at 135th on the WTA list. Now up to a career-high 33rd, victory over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Court Philippe Chatrier would lift her to 15th.

Speaking on Friday, Krejcikova suggested the pandemic, and the enforced deceleration of the tennis tours, had given her the time to mix up her singles and doubles schedules when previously her diary was overly packed.

The 25-year-old had been playing lower-tier ITF singles events but main-tour WTA doubles, and it had been a difficult juggling act.

"I hope there will be no more ITFs in singles for me," Krejcikova said. "I want to stay on this level. I want to really work hard just to stay here, to be able to play such matches like this. It was really tough playing ITFs because the schedule, the WTA in doubles, the schedule was tough. It was tight.

"Sometimes we played well, then I missed the tournament, then I wasn't ready to play. It was difficult. But I really think that the pandemic really helped me.

"Right now I just want to keep the level. I don't want to go backwards."

Should she and Katerina Siniakova win the doubles on Sunday, when last year's singles champion Iga Swiatek and American Bethanie Mattek-Sands should provide tough opposition, it would mean Krejcikova goes back to number one in those rankings.

Krejcikova has a 14-3 singles record on clay this season, with only two WTA players winning more matches on the surface (Paula Badosa 17-3, Coco Gauff 16-4)

She will hope to become just the third unseeded women's singles champion in French Open history, after Swiatek (2020) and Jelena Ostapenko (2017).

After teaming up with Siniakova to scuttle Magda Linette and Bernarda Perra 6-1 6-2 in their doubles semi-final on Friday, Krejcikova said: "I hope we saved some power for the finals.

"I'm looking forward that I'm going to play two more times on Chatrier. It's always perfect to play this court because it's a beautiful court. I think it's going to be a lot of fun playing these two finals."

Pavlyuchenkova is three weeks away from turning 30 and would become the third-oldest first-time grand slam winner on the women's tour, after Flavia Pennetta (33 years 200 days, 2015 US Open) and Ann Jones (30 years 261 days, 1969 Wimbledon).

She would also become the oldest Russian woman to win a singles major, taking that statistic away from Maria Sharapova who was 27 when she scooped her fifth and final slam in 2014 at Roland Garros.

Sitting 32nd in the rankings, she would jump to 14th by taking the title but is guaranteed to jump back into the top 20, for the first time since January 2018.

Pavlyuchenkova banished her grand slam quarter-final jinx this week, having lost all six of her previous last-eight singles matches at that stage in grand slams, including a 2011 loss to Francesca Schiavone at Roland Garros. She will hope her first trek beyond the quarters is not her last.

"It's been a long road. It's been a lot of ups and downs. It's been a tough one," said Pavlyuchenkova, who is playing in her 52nd grand slam.

"I definitely didn't expect this year being in the final. I guess you can't expect those things. I was just there working hard, doing everything possible. I just said to myself, 'You know what, this year let's do whatever it takes, anything you can do to improve your game, your mentality'.

"I started working with a sports psychologist, everything. I wanted to give it a try so I have no regrets after. That's it."

One thing is for sure: a new grand slam champion is about to be crowned, and Paris is used to that. The past five Roland Garros champions have all been new to the slam-winning experience, with Garbine Muguruza's maiden major in 2016 followed by breakthroughs for Ostapenko, Simona Halep, Ash Barty and Swiatek.

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    It wasn't so long ago that the notion of Juventus hoovering up talent from Serie A rivals would have been seen in a negative light by most Italian football fans.

    But while their domination of Italy's top division only really ended last season when Inter brought the Bianconeri's nine-year subjugation of Serie A to a halt, their current situation would make you think it was far longer since they were a challenger.

    When the season resumes after this international break, Juve will go into their next fixture at least 11 points off the top, down in fifth. For years their recruitment has been muddled and misguided, with Aaron Ramsey's fringe squad status the perfect embodiment of that.

    But Dusan Vlahovic's arrival shows there is life in the Old Lady yet, and given the striker's rise to prominence, this move is also potentially massive for Serie A in general.

    Fiorentina hadn't been shy about their desire to cash in on the Serbian, who turned 22 on Friday. They have been very public about how they simply could not afford to lose out on a transfer fee, a situation that was quickly threatening to become a real issue given his contract was due to expire in 2023.

    Pretty much all of Europe's biggest clubs were linked with Vlahovic at some point over the past 12 months, and for a while most people's money would have been on him moving to England.

    "Oh, another emerging talent scurrying off to chase the big bucks of the Premier League, how predictable," many 'calcio' fans were presumably muttering to themselves as… *checks notes*… Arsenal and Tottenham circled.

    As the story reportedly went, Vlahovic's agent didn't seriously consider those two in the end. Whether it might have been a different story for Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United or even Chelsea is unclear, but a coup it remains for Juve.

    Vlahovic's impact on Italian football, particularly over the past 18 months, has been significant. Some have suggested he's Serie A's answer to Erling Haaland – perhaps a slight exaggeration, but there's a reason Juve are investing in a guy who in 2021, let's not forget, became only the second player in the past 60 years to net 33 Serie A goals over a single calendar year.

    Juve's attraction to him makes absolute sense when you consider a metric as reductive – yet, crucial – as goals. Following Cristiano Ronaldo's exit last year, the Bianconeri were left with a gaping maw in terms of finishing ability. The faith placed in Alvaro Morata to pick up the slack was as optimistic as it was naive, as the Spaniard has five in 22 Serie A games.

    Vlahovic should, in theory, provide them with a number nine who is dedicated to goals. As Fiorentina's focal point this term, he has recorded 87 shots (second-most among Serie A players) and scored 15 non-penalty goals across all competitions.

    Some might point to the fact those 15 strikes are a considerable increase on his non-penalty xG (expected goals) of 10.2, and there's obviously a chance he won't prove to be quite so clinical for Juve, but it clearly shows they are buying a player brimming with belief.

    Similarly, being surrounded by better players in Turin may mean Vlahovic doesn't have to try as many low-xG shots. A quick look at his shot map in Serie A this season shows a significant variation in goal distances, which obviously has an impact on his xG per shot, which is 0.11 (excluding penalties).

    That may not mean anything in isolation, but when you compare that to Tammy Abraham's 0.18, there's quite a gulf. The England striker seems to be better at getting into clear-cut goalscoring situations, but if Vlahovic is already proving this deadly from worse positions, imagine what he could do if he improves.

    It's worth noting that by no means does Vlahovic only have eyes for goal. In fact, among 'conventional' strikers in Serie A this season, only four – and Paulo Dybala, nominally a creator anyway – have had more involvements in shot-ending sequences without taking the shot (45).

    That speaks to Vlahovic's link-up play and his effectiveness at knitting attacks together in the final third, a skill that is not to every striker's liking. Yet he manages to fulfil this function without it being to the detriment of his goals output.

    At Juve, assuming he links up in attack with Dybala, there may be less need for him to get as involved and that could potentially be how he improves his record of getting into higher xG situations.

    It's fair to assume Juve would see that pay dividends on the goals front, given he already only averages 2.2 touches per shot inside the box – that's only fractionally more than Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Haaland (all 2.0), showing how he's more of an instinctive finisher than the likes of Mohamed Salah (3.1) and Kylian Mbappe (3.3), who are more about dribbling and beating defenders.

    The fact is, Vlahovic still has elements to his game that could still improve, yet he's already performing at a high level. He may be young, but Juve have signed a player who can go straight into the team, which will presumably start being built around him.

    Whether Massimiliano Allegri is the right coach for this new Juventus is another debate, but the acquisition of Vlahovic could be a game-changer.

    At the very least, it's a genuine boost for Serie A to keep arguably its finest young player in the league despite the Premier League waving its vast sums in his direction.

    With Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku gone, Vlahovic is surely primed to be Serie A's new poster boy.

  • Juventus seal €70m deal for Fiorentina star Vlahovic Juventus seal €70m deal for Fiorentina star Vlahovic

    Juventus have completed the signing of highly rated Dusan Vlahovic from Fiorentina for a fee of €70million.

    The striker, who turned 22 on Friday, agreed to a four-and-a-half-year deal with the Bianconeri and passed a medical.

    Juve will pay the €70m fee over three financial years, plus additional costs of €11.6m. A further €10m will be due to Fiorentina should Vlahovic meet certain sporting objectives.

    Vlahovic is the joint-top scorer in Serie A this season with 17 goals from 21 appearances – a tally only matched by Lazio's Ciro Immobile.

    He has been linked with a host of top clubs across Europe after his impressive form over the past two seasons.

    Vlahovic joins Massimiliano Allegri's Juve team, who have often struggled to turn possession into goals this season, having scored just 34 times across 23 Serie A games.

    That means their attack is the 11th-best in the league, way behind leading scorers Inter (53), while Fiorentina have scored 41 times so far with Vlahovic on board.

    Serbia international Vlahovic, who joined La Viola from Partizan in 2018, has converted 28 big chances since the start of last season, more than any other player in Serie A.

     

    His tally of 21 goals during 2020-21 was the highest recorded by a Fiorentina player in a single campaign since Alberto Gilardino in 2008-09 (25).

    Vlahovic also netted 33 league goals in 2021; matching Cristiano Ronaldo’s record for the most scored in the Italian top-flight during a calendar year. 

    Last week, Fiorentina chief executive Joe Barone confirmed the club were open to selling Vlahovic, who subsequently missed Sunday's draw with Cagliari due to a positive COVID-19 test.

    Vlahovic's arrival in Turin may pave the way for Alvaro Morata to leave Juve, with Barcelona reportedly keen on signing the Spain international, who is on loan from Atletico Madrid.

  • Florence and the talent machine: Vlahovic and the players who left Fiorentina in big moves Florence and the talent machine: Vlahovic and the players who left Fiorentina in big moves

    Every league seems to have those teams that just produce talent on an apparently non-stop basis, before those players inevitably get picked off by the bigger boys.

    In Germany, you can't move for former Schalke or Stuttgart players. There's Lyon and Monaco in France, Athletic Bilbao and Valencia in Spain, Southampton and Aston Villa in England.

    In Italy, that team is probably Fiorentina, who are in the same position once again after La Viola sold star striker Dusan Vlahovic to Juventus in a €70million deal.

    Stats Perform takes a look at some of the biggest names in Italian football who made a name for themselves with the team from Tuscany, and what they went on to achieve in the game.

     

    Roberto Baggio

    Having begun his career at Vicenza, The Divine Ponytail's move to Fiorentina saw his star rise as he spent five impressive years in the purple shirt.

    However, after he helped Fiorentina to the 1990 UEFA Cup final, only to be defeated over two ill-tempered legs by their great rivals Juventus, salt was very much rubbed into the fans' wounds as the Bianconeri paid a then world-record fee to take Baggio.

    Reports claimed that fans hurled bricks, chains and Molotov cocktails at Fiorentina's headquarters, and for the two days after the transfer was announced, club president Flavio Pontello took shelter in the stadium, with 50 injuries and nine arrests recorded.

    Baggio would only improve his reputation further at Juve, winning the UEFA Cup in 1993, before securing a league and cup double two years later, scoring 115 goals in 200 games across five seasons before moving to Milan, where he won another Scudetto in his first year.

    After being dismissed by Fabio Capello at San Siro in 1997, Baggio had an impressive season at Bologna where he scored a personal best 22 league goals, before moving back to the city of Milan with Inter.

    Things did not work out at the Nerazzurri but he still went on to enjoy four final seasons in Serie A with Brescia, where he reached double figures in each campaign before retiring in 2004.

    Gabriel Batistuta

    There is arguably no more iconic player in Fiorentina history. A striker who football fans of a certain vintage remember banging in goals on Sunday afternoons during the nineties.

    Unlike most of the players on this list, Batistuta actually spent the majority of his career at Fiorentina, staying for nine years before his big-money move to Roma.

    The man affectionately known as 'Batigol' remains the club's record goalscorer with 159 goals in 198 games, though it does help his record that people like Vlahovic are usually sold before they can get anywhere near that total.

    Though he had won a Coppa Italia, Batistuta wanted a Scudetto and moved to Roma in 2000 in order to get it. It was the highest fee ever paid for a player over the age of 30, a record which stood until Leonardo Bonucci moved to Milan from Juventus in 2017.

    It seemed like a justified move when Batistuta scored 20 goals, including netting against his former club, on the way to winning the title in his first season in the Italian capital, but was unable to reach those heights again, scoring just 11 over the following season and a half before a loan move to Inter.

    Rui Costa

    The Portuguese maestro had made a name for himself at Benfica before moving to Italy in 1994 and making 230 appearances in seven years with La Viola, winning two Coppa Italia titles.

    However, like Batistuta, Rui Costa was moved on for big money to try and help the club's finances, ending up at Milan for a then club-record fee of around £35m.

    Rui Costa spent five years at San Siro where he won six trophies, including the Champions League in 2003 and Scudetto a year later. He moved back to Benfica in 2006 after the emergence of Kaka saw his minutes reduced.

    Federico Bernardeschi

    Bernardeschi came through the youth ranks at Fiorentina, with big things expected of him as he burst onto the scene after an impressive loan at Crotone in Serie B in the 2013-14 season.

    During three years in the first team, Bernardeschi scored 23 goals in 93 games and registered 11 assists, which unfortunately for Viola fans saw old enemies Juve come swooping in again.

    He has claimed three Serie A titles and two Coppa Italia trophies in Turin, as well as being a part of the Italy squad that won the rescheduled Euro 2020 last year.

    Bernardeschi, who has scored just 11 times in 170 games for Juve, largely remains a squad player under Massimiliano Allegri, in part because of this next man...

    Federico Chiesa

    Another Fiorentina youth product, Chiesa had all eyes on him as soon as he broke through due to being the son of former Viola and Italy striker Enrico Chiesa.

    Chiesa Jr made his first-team debut, somewhat ironically, against Juve at the age of 18, and over the next couple of years began to establish himself as the potential future of the club.

    More suited to playing out wide than his father, who was a traditional central striker, Chiesa's managed 34 goals and 19 assists in 153 games at Fiorentina but it his tenacity, pace and skill that sets him apart.

    That was enough to tempt – yes, you guessed it – Juve to come along and take him on a two-year loan, with an obligation to make it permanent at the end of the current campaign.

    Chiesa had an impressive first season at Juve, including scoring the winning goal in the Coppa Italia final against Atalanta, before starring for Italy in their successful Euro 2020 campaign, scoring twice in seven appearances and making the team of the tournament.

    He started 2021-22 in sharp form, only for a serious knee injury to end his season early.

     

    There also must be honourable mentions for the likes of Luca Toni, whose emergence at Fiorentina earned him a lucrative move to Bayern Munich, and Francesco Toldo - he was sold to Inter at the same time that Costa was packed off to Milan to ease club debts.

    Juan Cuadrado (now at Juventus) and Marcos Alonso were both sold to Chelsea for decent money two years apart, while Felipe Melo (Juventus), Stevan Jovetic (Manchester City) and Matias Vecino (Inter) continued Fiorentina's philosophy of buying low and selling high.

    The path well-trodden out of the Stadio Artemio Franchi has often led to bigger and better things, and that bodes well for Vlahovic now that it appears he will be the next in line.

    He seems to have all the tools to be the star striker this current, rather dour, edition of the Bianconeri require. Indeed, Vlahovic's 33 goals in Serie A last season matched the record set by Cristiano Ronaldo at Juve in 2020.

    It might be tough to take (again) for Viola fans, but if history is anything to go by, their next hero won't be far away.

    Of course, he'll probably also sign for Juve eventually, but that will just be a case of crossing the Ponte Vecchio when they come to it.

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