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HIGHLIGHTS: Swiatek overcomes Kerber in matchup of former major champs

In October 2020, Iga Swiatek loudly announced her arrival on the international tennis stage with a tremendous run to the singles title at Roland Garros. In the thick conditions of a chilly autumn, Swiatek tore through the field, her heavy topspin forehand and assured movements smothering one opponent after another.

Today was very different. In thin desert air, with the temperature nearing 90 degrees, Swiatek found herself on the slowest hard court in the world playing highly-resolute veteran Angelique Kerber for the first time. The No. 3 seed struggled early and labored continually, taking two hours and eight minutes to at last earn a 4-6, 6-2, 6-3 victory.

The first three games took 20 minutes, precisely the kind of attrition-based situation that has frequently worked in Kerber’s favor. But while Kerber is superb at running down balls and forcing opponents to play one shot after another, it’s a mistake to consider her playing style as purely defensive. My preferred term for Kerber: an aggressor, masquerading as a counterpuncher. Frequently in the first set, she struck her trademark off-forehand down the line. In some cases, it went untouched; in other rallies, simply the threat and doubt planted by it kept Swiatek off-balance, in the process triggering many errors.

“Truth be told,” said Swiatek, “I wasn't really sure what my tactics should be, if I should be more aggressive or play more patient game. But at the end I think I made the right decision in [the] right time, in [the] right moments of the match. I'm pretty happy about that.”

Of the 27 games these two played, 14 were won on service breaks. It often goes this way in Kerber’s matches. As a natural right-hander, her lefty serve is rarely forceful, the second serve in particular often easily attackable. Kerber served seven double-faults and won a meager 32 percent of her second serve points. It was more surprising to see Swiatek struggle with her delivery. Serving in the first set at 2-all, 15-30, Swiatek double-faulted twice in a row. She too backed up her second serve poorly, taking just 34 percent of those points.

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Swiatek has rallied from a set down in all three of her Indian Wells matches thus far to increase her win streak to eight.

Swiatek has rallied from a set down in all three of her Indian Wells matches thus far to increase her win streak to eight.

Said Swiatek, “It wasn't as solid as it was in my previous matches, I would say. On the other hand, if I was serving slower, Angie was not kind of using my power that much. If I was serving slower, I got more points. So it didn't really matter if I'm serving first serve or second. I could feel the heat today. Sometimes I felt like I could be more dynamic during my movement, but I wasn't. I think that's the reason why I missed some serves.”

As impressive and surprising as it’s been to see Kerber earn three Grand Slam titles, it’s frequently disturbed me that this lefty baseliner—competing in the era of Rafael Nadal—has failed to borrow a page from the Spaniard's book and become a more effective volleyer. So often in Kerber’s matches, she opens up the court but fails to take advantage of those opportunities by moving forward. Instead, there often comes a retreat and the chance for the opponent to breathe yet again.

While the elements and intangibles seemed to favor Kerber early on, over time the edge tilted towards Swiatek. Kerber could cut, but she couldn’t kill. “So it was really hard to play winners, especially in these conditions,” said the Pole. “If you're going to play too risky, you're just going to miss the court. I wanted to be patient because my first goal was to play in. Usually it comes naturally in other places. But here I don't feel that way. I kind of have to be more focused on just staying cool and just keeping the ball in and playing solid game.”

Eventually able to inhale and exhale more comfortably, Swiatek in the second and third sets began to hit more of the deep, hard and occasionally sharply angled drives that took her to the title at Roland Garros.

Next up for Swiatek is Madison Keys, an intriguing quarterfinal battle of big forehands. “I remember she can play really flat and really fast, but on the other hand she has a great serve and she uses her height, and she can play a great kick.” Swiatek won their only prior meeting, on the clay in Rome last spring.

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