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Iga Swiatek, Naomi Osaka set stage for stirring rivalry as introverts reign in Miami
The two friends faced off for what many hope will be the first of many big finals at the Hard Rock Stadium, which new No. 1 Swiatek took in straight sets.
Published Apr 02, 2022
WATCH: Swiatek's indomitable form took her to a 17th straight victory and third title in 2022.
How is it possible for two points to tell the story of a match won by the score of 6-4, 6-0? But consider two revealing moments from Iga Swiatek’s Miami Open final victory over Naomi Osaka.
In the first set, Swiatek served at 5-4, 30-15. Osaka rifled a down-the-line backhand return. Swiatek scampered to chop an underspin forehand that floated like a butterfly, but it was also deep enough to reset the rally. Two shots later, Osaka netted a backhand. On the next point, Swiatek closed out the 53-minute opener.
In the opening game of the second set, Osaka served at 0-15. Here it was Swiatek’s time to return powerfully, in her case with a crisp and deep inside-in forehand. Osaka reached it, but she was only in position to barely feather an underspin forehand that landed short. In dashed Swiatek to lace an untouchable backhand. From there, Swiatek snapped open the match, Osaka winning just eight points in the second set.
“I wanted to be in the zone,” said Swiatek. “I know I play the best when I don't even look at the score and treat every point the same way.”
“But I would say for me, myself, right now there is a Plan A and a Plan B, and the Plan A wasn't working,” said Osaka. “The Plan B is to get more balls in the court. But like doing that, I hit a bit slower, and I can't do that against her because she just comes in automatically.”
Movement made the difference in this match. Osaka is a darn good mover, but Swiatek of late has been extraordinary. Today, she became only the fourth woman to win the “Sunshine Double,” joining other superb movers Stefanie Graf (’94 and ’96), Kim Clijsters (’05) and Victoria Azarenka (’16). “I feel pretty privileged that I can be amongst those players,” said Swiatek, “because, you know, I wouldn't even dream of it few years ago. I knew it's going to be tough playing these two tournaments in a row.”
When I say we're going to have a rivalry, I mean it in a positive way, that we are going to compete against each other and actually motivate each other to be better and better. Iga Swiatek on Naomi Osaka
Swiatek most of all evoked the swarming qualities of Graf. Similar to Graf, time after time over these title runs, Swiatek has zoomed into position to rifle a laser of a forehand, a drive that combines the margin of topspin, as well as tremendous motion and accuracy.
The Swiatek backhand has also had its missile-like moments. In the first set, with Osaka serving at 2-2, 30-40, Swiatek stole a page from another legend, Monica Seles, stepping into the court to crack a sharply angled backhand drive for a winner. Indeed, Osaka’s inability to back up her serve was yet another telling factor. Osaka won 28 percent of her second serve points, compared to 67 percent for Swiatek.
As much as Swiatek eventually dominated this match (only the second they’ve played versus one another, Osaka winning the first back in 2019), there were enough compelling rallies to give hopes that Swiatek and Osaka could blossom into the kind of signature rivalry tennis thrives on. “Rivalries are what make the sport go around,” said Osaka. “People want to see the matchup in different countries or different surfaces. I think that's the most exciting thing about tennis is like you play in different altitudes, different conditions.”
Said Swiatek, “when I say we're going to have a rivalry, I mean it in a positive way, that we are going to compete against each other and actually motivate each other to be better and better.”
Swiatek-Osaka is also a rivalry marked not just with respect, but by the simple fact that these two like one another and are willing to express it. Osaka recalled a friendly dinner the two once had in Australia, one where Swiatek discussed that she was thinking of attending college and Osaka told her she had the goods for pro tennis. Said Swiatek, “Naomi is the kind of person, I mean, she's really nice and really humble and down to earth.”
Having reached her first final in more than a year, Osaka’s ranking will soar from No. 77 to No. 36. Said Osaka, “I think normally I would be crying in the locker room or something, but now I'm kind of like chill. I feel like I know what I want to do better, and I just want to go back and start training again to like hopefully win a tournament next time.”
She also spoke freely about her ambitions. “I think by like next year or by the end of this year I would love to be top 10,” said Osaka. “By next year I would love to be the No. 1. Oh, that's a big statement. Close to—Top 5. Erase that. Top 5. You know what? I'm going to set that goal. Top 1, yeah, No. 1.”
The three women who’ve most recently held the number one ranking all left their fingerprints on this year’s Miami Open. Ashleigh Barty shocked the world by announcing her retirement. Osaka was back in the thick of things once again. And then there was Swiatek, who has started off ’22 brilliantly, winning 26 of her first 29 matches, including 17 in a row and three straight WTA 1000 titles. To think that Swiatek will next compete on her most natural surface, clay.
The differences among these three are vivid—three separate continents, three contrasting playing styles. But there’s also a similarity: a willingness to overtly address the psychological challenges of life as a professional athlete. Barty in 2014 took more than a year away from the WTA Tour, another eleven months off during the pandemic in 2020 and early 2021, and has now exited tennis at the age of 25. Osaka in Miami shared that she’d seen a therapist to address many of the issues that she’s brought public attention to in the last year. Swiatek travels with a psychologist and has spoken often about the work the two do together.
In the last month, the WTA has signed two sponsors—Hologic, a company focused on women’s health; and Modern Health, a mental health platform. Might an increased capacity for overt introspection take tennis into new territory? One hopes it can continue to nurture the spirit of competition and camaraderie that flavored the Swiatek-Osaka match today.