PARIS — It was the first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal match for both Coco Gauff and Barbora Krejcikova and, frankly, you could tell.
There were tight groundstrokes into the net, errant service tosses and double faults, openings that remained closed and rapid reversals of fortune.
To summarize, there was tension in the sunlight as fans — remember those? — shouted “Allez Coco!” in the Philippe Chatrier Court from the top tier, finally open to spectators at this year’s French Open.
Gauff, the American 17-year-old, received the majority of the support, but she could not quite manage to give the Roland Garros crowd what it desired. After failing to convert five set points in the opening set, the 24th-seeded Gauff went on to lose to the unseeded Krejcikova, 7-6 (6), 6-3.
“I’m obviously disappointed that I wasn’t able to close out the first set,” Gauff said afterward, struggling to stay composed at a post-match news conference. “To be honest, it’s in the past. It already happened. After the match, Enzo, my hitting partner, told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that.”
Enzo Wallart, a Frenchman, may turn out to be correct, but what is clear is that there will be a new French Open women’s singles champion this year. This has been perhaps the most surprising edition of the women’s tournament at Roland Garros, and the trend deepened as Maria Sakkari upset Iga Swiatek, the No. 8 seed and the defending champion, 6-4, 6-4 in Wednesday’s second quarterfinal.
Sakkari, a muscular 25-year-old Greek who is the highest seed remaining at No. 17, was already a threat to the best. She has beaten Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka on hardcourts in the last year. But Sakkari, who has won just one tour singles title, is making her first run past the round of 16 at a Grand Slam tournament and she did it by defeating both of last year’s French Open finalists, including the American Sofia Kenin in the fourth round.
“I have people around me telling me it was going to come,” she said. “I was impatient, telling them, ‘When?’ and ‘When?’ and ‘When?’”
Greece, no traditional tennis superpower, looks as solid as the Acropolis, as Sakkari’s friend and compatriot Stefanos Tsitsipas will play in the men’s semifinals. Sakkari joined him with a powerful performance against Swiatek, the 20-year-old from Poland who had not dropped a set at Roland Garros in singles since 2019.
Swiatek’s topsin-heavy forehand, the linchpin to her success on clay, was misfiring on Wednesday, but that was also because Sakkari was so quick to counter it.
“It surprised me that she played so much to my forehand, but I did some mistakes at the beginning,” Swiatek said. “And she just took the lesson from that.”
For the first time in the Open era, the final four women’s singles players at the French Open are all first-time Grand Slam semifinalists. It also happened at the 1978 Australian Open, which had a weak field and was won by Australian Chris O’Neil, ranked just 111.
On Thursday, Sakkari will face Krejcikova and the No. 31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova will play Tamara Zidansek, a 23-year-old ranked 85th on the tour.
Gauff, who was the last American left in singles, finished with 25 winners, 41 unforced errors and one mangled racket after destroying it in anger with three swift blows to the red clay after double-faulting to fall behind by 4-0 in the final set.
It was a confounding day for Gauff, who was brilliant at times, hitting backhand winners and turning defense into offense, but off target at others. After Krejcikova saved five set points, the last three with groundstroke winners, Gauff’s all-court game unraveled.
At one stage in the second set, she lost 15 straight points. Krejcikova, a French Open doubles champion in 2018, has begun to come into her own as a singles player and has a wide array of shots as well as baseline power when she summons it.
But Krejcikova, too, struggled with her nerves and her serve on Wednesday. She has been open this week about her efforts to manage the mental strain of going deep at a major tournament.
She said the pandemic had helped her put tennis in perspective in general: “I go and I play tennis and I lose, but there are actually people that are losing their lives.” But before her fourth-round match with Sloane Stephens, she said she locked herself in a room at Roland Garros, crying and afraid she would embarrass herself with a lopsided loss.
She said she and her psychologist had a long discussion. “She told me, ‘If you can overcome this, what you feel right now, it’s going to be a huge win, and it doesn’t matter if you’re going to win on the court or lose on the court, because it’s going to be a personal win.’”
It turned out to be a win-win as she played a brilliant match, expertly mixing her spins and tactics to defeat Stephens, just as Gauff played her best match of the tournament when she defeated the 25th-seeded Ons Jabeur in the fourth round without a double fault.
But Gauff double-faulted on the opening point of the match on Wednesday and finished with seven, often catching her service tosses. Despite falling behind 5-0 in the second set, she did not go through the motions. She kept fighting, holding serve and with the crowd behind her, saving three match points to break Krejcikova’s serve in the next game and then saving two more match points as she held serve to close to 5-3.
Krejcikova held firm in the next game and when Gauff missed her final forehand, she became the second unseeded player to reach this year’s French Open semifinals after Zidansek.
“This one will be on my mind for a couple days, for sure,” Gauff said. “I think just reflecting on it, you know, it’s over, so I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, if I did this, if I did that.’ I think in the moment I did what I thought was the best decision and I have to stick on that.”
Gauff will start preparing for Wimbledon, which begins on June 28. It is where she burst to prominence in 2019 at age 15 by defeating Venus Williams in her first Grand Slam singles match.
Her progress since then has been steady rather than meteoric. There will be more to learn from Wednesday’s setback. But this was a positive clay-court season and tournament for the engaging teenager. She reached the semifinals of the Italian Open in Rome and won the singles and doubles titles in Parma. She was seeded at a major tournament for the first time being and won four matches in Paris without dropping a set.
“Her time will come,” said Krejcikova, who, at 25, knows a thing or two about patience.