As Iga Swiatek claimed her third Roland Garros title last weekend, the Polish number one cemented her status as a clay court legend at the age of just 22.
Becoming the first player to defend the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen since Justine Henin in 2007, Swiatek stormed through the draw, dishing out four bagel sets and losing only 23 games enroute to the final.
Coming up against the unseeded Muchova in the showpiece match, Swiatek was a heavy favourite.
Yet the Czech challenger rose to the occasion, rebounding from a slow start to claim the second set and go up a break twice in the decider, only to stumble at the death and fall agonisingly short.
She won plenty of admirers throughout the event, although for many, the 26-year-old’s success was not so much a surprise as the materialisation of a long-recognised potential.
Following a junior career plagued by injuries, Muchova’s initial rise in the rankings came back in 2019, where she began the year outside the top 100 and finished it at #21 off the back of a Wimbledon quarterfinal appearance and a first career title at the Korea Open.
The Czech’s trajectory somewhat plateaued for the next year, before finally cracking the top 20 in May 2021 after an excellent start to the year highlighted by a run to the Australian Open semi-finals which included a win over Ash Barty.
A series of injuries returned to hamper Muchova’s 2022 season and saw her end the year ranked outside the top 150.
As a result, Muchova came into 2023 without much fanfare or expectation, relying on her protected ranking to enter into events like the Australian Open and Indian Wells.
Consequently, her run to the final of Roland Garros was as shocking as it was exhilarating, propelling her to a career high ranking of #16 having started the tournament outside the top
Given this context, one could be forgiven for believing Muchova’s name will be added to the list of so called ‘one hit wonders’, whose excellent run to a slam final (or even a slam title) proves to be an anomaly built on an unsustainably high level of tennis.
The WTA tour has witnessed a procession of these one-time grand slam finalists/champions over the last decade. Eugenie Bouchard, Jelena Ostapenko, Madison Keys, Marketa Vondrousova, Bianca Andreescu and Danielle Collins are all examples of this phenomenon.
Whilst the impact of injuries should not be understated, and of course any of these players could still return to their top form in the future, there is no doubt that each has been unable to achieve what many expected following their initial success.
Karolina Muchova, however, simply has too many exceptional qualities to fall into this same trap. Roland Garros 2023 was surely just the beginning.
Most obviously, the sheer variety in Muchova’s game is a unique quality on the WTA tour.
Comparisons with Ash Barty were regular throughout the tournament, and not without good cause.
Muchova’s first and second serve are strong, both in terms of raw pace and her ability to utilise a range of spins and heights.
She can hit conventional flat forehands and backhands (the down-the-line backhand proving a key weapon at Roland Garros) but is also a master of the slice backhand and is ruthless in her execution of drop shots.
Muchova is constantly searching for opportunities to approach the net and win points with her high-quality volleys, or she will draw less comfortable opponents up the court and best them with lobs and passing shots (as seen in the final v Swiatek).
The combination of these attributes means Muchova’s success scarcely relies on one or two shots or patterns of play.
Muchova can win matches even when her offensive weapons are not firing, plus she possesses a profound understanding of how to draw errors by making her opponents as uncomfortable as possible.
The world number 16’s wide range of potential routes to victory means her results are less likely to fluctuate than many others on the tour.
Muchova also has the skillset to beat every type of opponent she may come across.
In Paris, the Czech beat hard hitters like Aryna Sabalenka and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, clay court grinders like Nadia Podoroska and Irina-Camelia Begu, plus got the better of Maria Sakkari’s all-court game.
Throw in a steely demeanour which did not crack even under the pressure of one of the most dramatic grand slam semi-finals in recent memory, or when falling a set and a break behind in the final, and it appears Muchova has the full package.
In fact, the main reason the Czech has taken until the age of 26 to reach her first slam final is the same as the only significant barrier to her remaining at the top of the game for the rest of her career: injuries.
Muchova’s body has limited her progress at multiple stages of her tennis journey and there is no way of guaranteeing it will not continue to do so.
For the sake of every tennis viewer, one can only hope that Muchova is afforded an uninterrupted run going forward.
If she is able to play consistently though, do not be surprised to see Muchova’s ranking climb even further, or for her name to regularly pop up at the business end of big events.