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Iga Swiatek opens her 20s, and Roland Garros title defense, with a win
A dominant start became a tense ending, but ultimately the No. 8 seeded ousted good friend Kaja Juvan in her Paris opener.
Published May 31, 2021
WATCH: Swiatek wins her 16th consecutive set at Roland Garros over good friend Kaja Juvan to kick off her title defense.
Seven months removed from her maiden major triumph on the terre battue, Iga Swiatek has made it clear that Roland Garros remains her party, and you’ll cry if she wants you to.
The Pole celebrated her 20th birthday with yet another decisive victory on clay, this time over good friend Kaja Juvan, 6-0, 7-5. It kicked off her French Open title defense and extended set-win streak at Roland Garros to 16—so, eight matches. Dating back to her Internazionali BNL d’Italia semifinal against Coco Gauff, Swiatek won 20 games without reply—including three 6-0 sets—before Juvan snuck in a hold early in the second.
Caught sharing an off-court hug as the two warmed up for the match, the precocious youngsters embraced once more after Swiatek ended things by tracking a dropshot into the open court, and continued chatting as Marion Bartoli emerged with a bouquet to lead the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd in a rendition of “Happy Birthday.”
"You're playing great," Swiatek reassured Juvan, who rejoined, "Yeah, the second set was good, right?"
The two admittedly go way back, winning a Youth Olympic gold medal in doubles back in 2018, and they shared an especially memorable 2019 interview in which Juvan jokingly reamed Swiatek for reading a book while watching her Wimbledon qualifying clash—while Swiatek, in turn, teased the Slovenian for her admiration of philosophers Socrates and Descartes.
"It's never easy to play against your best friend," Swiatek said after the match. "I have some experience because I played with Kaja for a few times. I've played with my other friends on junior level.
"You just try to block this friendship for two hours, just focus on the game. I think I'm doing that pretty well. It's nice to have that skill. So I was just trying to treat Kaja as any other girl, as any other opponent, because in sports when we are on court you can't have, like, thoughts that are you going to make your game more soft."
On the court, the defending champion was indeed far less philosophical as she clubbed her way to a set and 3-1 advantage, and held off a late surge from Juvan to win a marathon final game on her fourth match point.
What could have been a disappointing defeat for Juvan—who pushed Serena Williams to three sets at that aforementioned Wimbledon, and has gone winless since contracting COVID-19 in Monterrey—was blunted by happiness for her friend, who marches into the second round to next face Rebecca Peterson.
"She's pretty solid on both sides," Juvan explained after the match. "She's able to stay in the rallies, attack, and use a lot of her weapons. We've had different paths in the last three years, so I'm just happy I could play with her in the second set, especially. I felt like I was there and had some chances; it was close, and that's what I'm going to take out of this."
The No. 8 seed has effortlessly integrated into the upper echelons of the sport since capturing her Roland Garros crown last fall, winning titles in Melbourne and Rome, with an Australian Open fourth round appearance in the middle—where she narrowly fell to former world No. 1 Simona Halep.
"I feel like my game is better and better," Swiatek said. "My coaches were planning everything for me to have the peak of my shape right now. Hopefully it's going to be here, but still even though I have, like, big confidence and I'm feeling really good, we still have to remember that every match has a different story and many things can happen on court."
Her lone hiccup was an early loss in Miami to a resurgent Ana Konjuh, and even there, she rebounded with a semifinal finish in doubles with Bethanie Mattek-Sands.
"You just have to be careful all the time, not let yourself think that you're better or something because everybody is equal on court. It doesn't really matter what is your ranking or if you won last tournament because it's tennis and it's pretty unpredictable."
She’ll reunite with the American as the No. 14 doubles seeds this week in Paris, but her primary focus will undoubtedly be on singles, and a projected semifinal with top seed Ashleigh Barty—the only woman to have beaten Swiatek on clay since last October.
With one win already in the books, Swiatek’s had her (birthday) cake; the question remains whether she can maintain this level often enough to be around at the end of the fortnight and eat it, too.