Jasmine Paolini wins Wimbledon’s longest women’s semifinal and faces Barbora Krejcikova next

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LONDON (AP) — Jasmine Paolini kept coming back, kept coming back, kept coming back, against Donna Vekic in what would become the longest Wimbledon women’s semifinal on record — after dropping the opening set, after being two games from defeat in each of the last two sets, after twice trailing by a break in the third.

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And all the while, this is what Paolini kept telling herself Thursday: “Try, point by point” and “Fight for every ball.”

Paolini never had won a match at the All England Club until last week and now will participate in her second consecutive Grand Slam final, thanks to a rollicking 2-6, 6-4, 7-6 (10-8) victory over the unseeded Vekic across 2 hours, 51 minutes on Centre Court.

“This match,” said the No. 7-seeded Paolini, who faces No. 31 Barbora Krejcikova for the title, “I will remember forever.”

As will many of the thousands who were present or the millions watching on TV.

“It was,” Paolini said, “a rollercoaster of emotions.”

The same could be said of the second semifinal, which lasted 44 fewer minutes but contained its own share of plot twists as 2021 French Open champion Krejcikova came back to eliminate 2022 Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina 3-6, 6-3, 6-4.

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Whoever wins on Saturday will be the eighth woman to leave the All England Club with the title in the past eight editions of the tournament.

Krejcikova trailed 4-0 at the start, reeled off four of five games to take the second set, then earned the pivotal break to move ahead 5-3 in the third against Rybakina, who entered the day with a 19-2 career mark at the All England Club.

“During the second set, somewhere in the middle, I was getting my momentum,” Krejcikova said. “And when I broke her, I started to be in a zone — and I didn’t want to leave the zone.”

Still, it couldn’t approach the drama produced by Paolini and Vekic.

Consider: Vekic, making her debut in a Slam semifinal, ended up claiming more points (118-111), delivering more winners (42-26) and breaking serve more often (4-3).

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“She was hitting winners everywhere,” Paolini said.

But Paolini never went away, eventually converting her third match point when Vekic sent a forehand wide. This showing on the grass courts at Wimbledon follows Paolini’s runner-up finish to Iga Swiatek on the red clay at the French Open last month.

Paolini, a 28-year-old from Italy, is the first woman to get to the title matches at Roland Garros and the All England Club in the same season since Serena Williams in 2016.

“These last months have been crazy for me,” Paolini said with a laugh.

Her win was anything but easy. Exhausting would be a more appropriate word.

Vekic often was in obvious distress, crying between points and while sitting in her changeover chair late in the third set _ because, she said afterward, of pain in an arm and a leg — and often looked up at her guest box with a flushed face. She iced her right forearm between games.

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“I thought I was going to die in the third set,” said Vekic, who repeatedly closed her eyes, sighed or shook her head during her news conference.

“I didn’t know how,” she said, “I could keep playing.”

How surprising is Paolini’s recent surge?

She never had managed to make it past the second round at any major tournament — losing in the first or second round in 16 appearances in a row — until she got to the fourth round at the Australian Open in January.

And then there’s this: Paolini’s career record at Wimbledon was 0-3 until this fortnight. Indeed, she did not own a single tour-level win on grass anywhere until a tuneup event at Eastbourne last month.

Krejcikova, a 28-year-old from the Czech Republic, is not nearly as out-of-nowhere, given that she has been a Grand Slam champion and ranked No. 2 in singles, as well as a seven-time major champ and No. 1 in doubles. She’s also now 6-2 at major tournaments against past Slam champs.

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Her mentor, the late Jana Novotna, won Wimbledon in 1998, and Krejcikova teared up while speaking about her influence.

“I have so many beautiful memories, and when I step on the court here, I’m just fighting for every single ball, because I think that’s what she would want me to do,” Krejcikova said. “I just miss her very much. I miss her so much.”

Like Krejcikova, Paolini needed about 1 1/2 sets to get going. Her never-give-up attitude was apparent at 4-all in the second, when she sprinted with her back to the net to put her racket on a lob, somehow getting it back over the net, and Vekic badly missed an overhead.

Paolini held there to lead 5-4, then broke for the set with a forehand winner, looked up at her guest box — where her relatives and her doubles partner, Sara Errani, were on their feet — and screamed, “Forza!” (“Let’s go!”)

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Vekic, playing her fifth three-setter in six matches, headed to the locker room before the last set, recalibrated and came out strong. She broke in the opening game, helped by a forehand return winner on a second serve, followed by Paolini’s missed forehand on an 11-stroke exchange.

Soon Vekic led 3-1. After a later trade of breaks, she was up 4-3.

“I believed I could win,” Vekic said, “until the end.”

But Paolini steadied herself, her racket and her resolve — and now gets a second chance to play for her first Slam trophy.

There was something else on her mind as she got ready to head to the locker room, though.

“Now I’m going to the ice bath,” Paolini said, “because my legs are a little bit tired.”

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