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At Roland Garros, Iga Swiatek makes tennis history of a high order
Across seven matches, she dropped no sets and was never extended beyond 6-4, conceded only 28 games, and knocked out two of the top four seeds.
Published Oct 10, 2020
After Iga Swiatek established herself as the first Polish tennis player ever to capture a major singles title by sweeping aside Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1 in the French Open final, the immensely poised 19-year-old was understandably hard pressed to explain a fortnight that she will surely remember for the rest of her life. Not only did Swiatek comprehensively take apart the Australian Open victor in the title round contest, but that was simply the last chapter in a stirring first ever title run on the WTA Tour. Across seven matches, she dropped no sets and was never extended beyond 6-4, conceded only 28 games, and knocked out two of the top four seeds.
Asked by 2015 Wimbledon champion Marion Bartoli of France to put her triumph into perspective, Swiatek said, “I think I was just mentally consistent. I just wanted to play aggressive as I did in the previous rounds. I felt like today was stressful for me. I don’t actually know what made the difference.”
The difference was more apparent to observers who witnessed a great young champion securing the first WTA Tour title of her career with almost total self assurance and remarkable maturity.
“It is just crazy,” she would say afterwards. “It is overwhelming. Two years ago I was winning junior Grand Slam titles [most notably at Wimbledon] and right now I am here. It feels like such a short time.”
Swiatek's winner's speech:
Swiatek came out of the blocks on the most auspicious occasion of her career and performed with the same verve, tenacity and stability she had demonstrated all tournament long. Here was Kenin in her second major final, and some in the cognoscenti believed her experience might carry the day. Kenin was striving to become the seventh American woman to be victorious in the singles at Roland Garros, hoping to join the likes of Serena Williams, seven time champion Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, and Billie Jean King.
This was the first time two female players 21 years old and younger had clashed in a Grand Slam tournament final since Maria Sharapova ousted Ana Ivanovic to take the 2008 Australian Open crown. On paper, the No. 4 seed Kenin was the favorite. But to those who had been following the swift ascent of the No. 54 ranked Swiatek, there were many who thoroughly liked her chances.
As if to underline the fact that she was ready to handle the pressure and able to release her finest tennis, Swiatek swiftly asserted her authority. She held at love in the opening game, locating her serve impeccably to set up a forehand down the line winner. Finding excellent length off the backhand, the Polish competitor broke at 30 for 2-0 and held at 15 for 3-0—opening that game with a winning drop shot, closing it with a deep first serve eliciting an errant return from the 21-year-old American. Swiatek had won 12 of 15 points.
To 3-0 went Swiatek in a hurry, but Kenin was slowly finding her range and ready to impose herself. Buoyed by an ace and some stinging shots off her two-hander, Kenin held at 30 for 1-3, broke at 15 for 2-3, and held at 30 for 3–3. Now she had collected 12 of 17 points to gain level ground. Exhilarated by that comeback, spurring herself on with characteristic intensity, Kenin screamed “Come On!”
Yet Swiatek dealt with the shifting momentum admirably. After double faulting for 30-30 in the crucial seventh game and twice being stretched to deuce, she produced a first rate drop shot off the backhand to earn a third game point and advanced to 4-3 when Kenin pressed off the forehand and sent it long.
Kenin led 40-30 in the eighth game but pulled a forehand wide under duress. She garnered a second game point and drew Swiatek in with a drop shot. Swiatek’s response was to send a forehand down the line with good depth to set up a backhand drop volley winner. The 19-year-old finally got the break for 5-3 after five deuces, coaxing a backhand error from Kenin.
When Swiatek served for the set in the ninth game, she double faulted to trail 15-30 but still advanced to set point at 40-30, only to apprehensively net a backhand approach. Kenin broke back with a sparkling backhand crosscourt winner. She had once more overcome a daunting deficit and seemed to be raising her game at just the right time.
But Swiatek was unflustered. Coming into the final, she had broken serve in 32 of 46 games and nearly 70% of the time against her six adversaries. Now she set out to break Kenin at a crucial moment with her opponent determined to make it back to 5-5. Kenin took the first point of that game but Swiatek swept four in a row from that juncture, sealing the set with sound execution and ingenuity, claiming the last point by recovering with a sliced lob off the forehand. Kenin was forced to retreat to the baseline and eventually faltered off the backhand.
Kenin commenced the second set by breaking her opponent at 30 for 1-0, concluding that game with a forehand inside in return winner. But Kenin was unable to consolidate the break. She double faulted for 15-40, took the next point, but was broken at 30 when Swiatek exploited perhaps the best shot in her arsenal, driving a two-handed backhand down the line with remarkable disguise, curling that shot inside the sideline as she stepped outside the alley. That was tennis off the top shelf.
Swiatek held easily at 15 for 2-1 before Kenin took a medical timeout to have the taping on her left thigh adjusted. The delay could have thrown a lesser player off guard with so much riding on the outcome of the match, but Swiatek simply limbered up on court and refused to lose her sharp focus. She promptly broke Kenin at 15 for 3-1 with a deep return down the middle, held at love for 4-1 with two winners off the backhand along with an ace, and broke at love for 5-1. Serving for the match in the seventh game, Swiatek remained oblivious to the score and the situation. She held at 30 to complete her mission, closing the contest stylishly and fittingly with a forehand crosscourt winner driven behind a stranded Kenin.
And so Swiatek came through 6-4, 6-1. She claimed 24 of the last 30 points and six games in a row to conclude a stunningly efficient performance. To be sure, this was a baptism of sorts. Swiatek came upon Roland Garros as a player of promise, as a competitor highly respected by her peers, as someone insiders knew had enormous potential.
But not until she toppled the heavy tournament favorite Simona Halep 6-1, 6-2 in the round of 16 did anyone pay much attention to Swiatek. Often when a player engineers a major upset of that sort against a former champion (Halep took the Roland Garros title two years ago) she will then suffer a letdown and bow out in the next couple of rounds. That is the nature of the business.
Tennis Channel's Chanda Rubin on the 19-year-old's breakthrough on the terre battue:
Those who are responsible for these upsets then have their feet put to the fire. They have to prove that the belong and prove what they did was no fluke. They need to demonstrate that they have the ability to back up a big triumph and reproduce that magic over and over again.
Swiatek did just that. After she had stunned the top seeded Halep in the round of 16, the dazzling Polish ball striker upended Italy’s qualifier Martina Trevisan 6-3, 6-1 and then accounted for Nadia Podoroska of Argentina 6-2, 6-1. Podoroska had just beaten No. 3 seed Elina Svitolina. To then top it all off with a decisive victory over the No. 4 seed Kenin was an extraordinary feat.
As Swiatek said on court following her breakthrough victory, “Maybe it had to be like this that another underdog is going to win a Grand Slam in women’s tennis which happens so often right now. It’s crazy.”
Maybe not so much. Iga Swiatek is for real. The feeling here is that she will win many more of the premier prizes in the years ahead. She will surely need to grow into her talent and it will not be easy to get accustomed to her new surroundings. But Swiatek is too good not to find comfort in the territory of the elite over the long run. The view here is that Swiatek is a prodigious player with boundless potential who will win many more majors over the course of the next decade.