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Perfect tennis took Iga Swiatek to her first major title, but an indomitable spirit may take her to a second at the Australian Open
The 20-year-old Pole was often below her best in her quarterfinal against Kaia Kanepi before problem-solving her way to a second major semifinal.
Published Jan 26, 2022
WATCH: Swiatek played impeccable defense to outlast an on-fire Kaia Kanepi in the quarterfinals.
Players will often tell you it’s all the sweeter to win a match despite playing below their best. Based on Iga Swiatek’s reaction to a decidedly unaesthetic 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3 victory over Kaia Kanepi to reach her second major semifinal after three hours on court, that adage clearly holds true for the 20-year-old.
This run has been a vast departure from how she earned her first major victory at Roland Garros, losing only 28 games in seven matches. Through five matches Down Under, the No. 7 seed has already dropped two sets and needed to rally from a set down against Sorana Cirstea just to reach the quarterfinals against Kanepi.
At 36 years old, Kanepi is more adept at overcoming adversity, having revived her injury-addled career multiple times since turning pro in 1999 and shook off a premature celebration to outserve No. 2 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the Round of 16.
The Estonian powerhouse was playing her seventh career major quarterfinal—and her first at the Australian Open—and those decades of experience clearly carried her in the early exchanges as she clobbered Swiatek’s whippy spin with bludgeoning power. Though it took nine chances, Kanepi duly converted and opened with a break to start the second set on Rod Laver Arena.
Across the net, Swiatek was ready to boil over: gone was the near-invincible teenager who happily slid to success in Paris. Getting consistently brutalized at the baseline and struggling mightily on serve—ending the match with 12 double faults—she grew visibly frustrated when Kanepi rallied from 4-1 down and threatened to take the second set out from under her. The match was quickly becoming the ultimate test of her oft-cited mental preparation, spearheaded by sports psychologist Daria Abromowicz.
In really important moments, I try to trust myself and listen to my intuition. Iga Swiatek
In a match between a dagger and a bazooka, Swiatek continued making her cuts, anticipating Kanepi’s big swings and returning them with as much interest as possible to avoid giving up a short ball. Her patience, however rattled, was eventually rewarded in the tiebreak when the Pole leveled the match and eased to a 2-0 lead to begin the decider.
Though Kanepi clawed back, the precision that took her within inches of a long-awaited major semifinal abandoned her and her young opponent took full advantage, drawing the veteran into an epic match point that electrified the often-understated Swiatek.
"I'm really glad that I have my voice because I was shouting so much!" she exclaimed during her on-court interview.
Suddenly Swiatek finds herself in comfortable territory—after all, she’s still undefeated in major semifinals (even if it’s a humble 1-0 record). More impressive than her unique execution is her intellectual approach; Swiatek is a student of the game, something that has allowed her to boast exponential improvements throughout her relatively short time on tour.
In 2021, she bowed out to a more-experienced Simona Halep in the fourth round, thereby ending a 10-match Grand Slam winning streak left over from her Roland Garros triumph. She spent the rest of the year building the foundation she’d been able to skip and ended it as the only player to reach the second week of all four major tournaments.
Having proven her staying power and ability to hang with the game’s best even when she’s below hers, Swiatek will arrive for her final-four clash with Danielle Collins not much older but infinitely wiser—confident that even as a mere mortal, she’s one heck of a tennis player.