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As the US Open reaffirmed, Iga Swiatek feeds off being challenged—and that’s why she’s the best
“It’s also like a confirmation for me that the sky is the limit,” the 21-year-old said Saturday after defeating Ons Jabeur, 6-2, 7-6 (5).
Published Sep 11, 2022
It isn’t what you do when things are going smoothly; it’s what you do when adversity strikes. That’s a pretty common definition of what makes a champion in any sport, and it’s especially true in tennis. Even the best players never know when their momentum and confidence will suddenly go up in smoke. The ones who emerge as winners are the ones who find a way to succeed anyway.
When Iga Swiatek had the momentum in her US Open final against Ons Jabeur on Saturday, she was brilliant, and she rode it as far as it would take her. She tore through the first set and the first three games of the second with brutal efficiency, and looked ready to terminate the match in under an hour. In Djokovichian fashion, she took the ball on the short hop, and powered it back with a metronomically perfect blend of height, depth, and pace. Her rally shots were excellent, and her putaways better.
This has been the Swiatek way in finals. Before this match, she had played 11 of them and won 10, all in straight sets. But Jabeur is too good not to go down in a match of this magnitude without launching a counterattack. She willed herself back into the second set in a straightforward way: By hitting shots that were so good even Swiatek couldn’t track them down. When Jabeur reached 15-40 at 4-4 on Swiatek’s serve, the heavily pro-Ons crowd in Ashe backed her with its loudest roar of the day. They wanted a third set, and they could taste it.
So could Jabeur. She took control of the next rally, leaned in, and sent a forehand curling into the corner and seemingly out of Swiatek’s reach. Except that Swiatek reached it, barely, and blocked it back with her outstretched racquet. Forced to hit one more ball, Jabeur sent the next one long. A few points later, at deuce, the same thing happened. Jabeur attacked, Swiatek desperately stabbed the ball back, and Jabeur missed. The crowd settled down, and her momentum vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Swiatek hit dozens of spectacular shots in her 6-2, 7-6 (5) win, but none were more valuable than those two unheralded defensive gems. You might say that Jabeur had enough game to catch up, but not enough to win, and that’s not wrong. But it was Swiatek’s slight superiority in every aspect of the game, including defense, that put Jabeur in a position to miss.
“I’m just super proud of myself because it wasn’t an easy match, even though at the beginning I was dominating, I knew it’s going to be tight and I knew that Ons is going to use any mistake that I’m going to make,” Swiatek said.
“I didn’t want to back out.”
If Swiatek’s performance was dazzling and stubborn, Jabeur’s was valiant and moving. This was her second straight Grand Slam final defeat, and the second time she has failed to become the first Arab player to win a major. At Wimbledon, she won the first set; at the Open she led the second-set tiebreaker 5-4, before making routine errors on the final two points. It may have been nerves that did her in, but it also may be that her flat shots don’t have a lot of margin for error, and at some point in a rally, she’s more likely than Swiatek to miss.
As she did with Elena Rybakina at Wimbledon, Jabeur teasingly expressed her anger at the younger opponent who had beaten her.
“I don’t like her very much right now,” she said of Swiatek, “but that’s OK.”
Jabeur thanked the crowd for “cheering me up,” but that understates the support she received in New York on Saturday. It’s an old-fashioned term, but maybe the city likes a player with soul—Ons has it. She feels the weight of her role, but does her best to wear it lightly.
“To be honest with you, I have nothing to regret because I did everything possible,” she said afterward.
In one sense, Jabeur was putting on a brave face. In another, it was true; Swiatek was better.
Swiatek was better because, as I wrote above, she won when she was the second-best player on the court. With a 4-2 lead in the tiebreaker, she tightened up and let Jabeur go ahead 5-4. On two of those points, Swiatek missed a forehand into the net and a backhand long. Yet that didn’t stop her, at 4-5, from going for absolute broke on a down-the-line forehand, and making it to level the score at 5-5. As the ball buzzed past her, Jabeur threw her head up in disbelief. She may have been jarred, because she missed two easy shots on the next two points to lose the match.
“It’s something that I wasn’t expecting for sure,” said Swiatek, who was in a mini-slump coming to New York. “It’s also like a confirmation for me that the sky is the limit.”
Swiatek didn’t “back out,” as she said, when things got tough. She was great when she wasn’t challenged. She was even better when she was. That’s why she’s the best.