Ashleigh Barty and Iga Swiatek, the 2019 and 2020 Roland Garros women’s champions, met for the first time in Madrid on Monday. The stylistic contrast between the two—Swiatek is a power-baseliner and Barty an all-courter—promised much. Yet, even after they had faced off for an hour and 40 minutes in Manolo Santana stadium, their third-round clash still felt a little preliminary, like an opening gambit, or a rough rehearsal for future showstoppers to come.
The match went the way the rankings told us it would. Barty, the top seed, beat the 14th-seeded Swiatek, 7-5, 6-4. The stat that summed up the story best was break points: Barty saved six of the seven she faced, and converted all three of her own. She made just 53 percent of her first serves, and hit just six aces, but each of them came at just the right time; Swiatek never seemed to anticipate Barty’s T serve in the ad court.
While Swiatek ended up with more winners (22 to 20), as expected, it was Barty who got the first strike in with her forehand more often than not, especially on important points. Serving at 6-5 in the first set, Barty went down 15-30 before hitting two forehand winners. Serving for the match at 5-4 in the second, Barty started with another forehand winner and closed it out with two unreturnable serves.
“I think probably the first half an hour was a bit of an adjustment period for both of us,” Barty said. “I think it took me some time to get used to Iga’s weight of shot.”
“A lot of my service games I felt like I was building pressure on her service games by being able to get out of some tight ones.”
As for Swiatek, she broke out of the gate fast, went up 3-0, and threatened again on Barty’s serve in the fourth game. But once Barty was on the scoreboard, she relaxed and Swiatek tightened. That tightening up was most noticeable, and damaging, on her serve. Swiatek made just 46 percent of her first serves and double faulted six times, three of them when she was broken in the match’s most crucial game, at 5-5 in the first set.
Just as Barty seemed to have an ace for every big point, Swiatek seemed to have a double fault. When she finally found her first serve and made it through an easy hold late in the second set, Swiatek raised her hands in a mock victory celebration.
When we talk about Barty’s game, we usually talk about her versatility. And when we talk about her versatility, we usually talk about her ability to change spins and speeds from the baseline and finish points at the net, things that many of her more one-dimensional opponents can’t do. Barty did keep Swiatek off-balance with her slice in this match, and she won one important point with a perfectly measured short underspin backhand. But for the most part Barty showed off her versatility by staying at the baseline and beating Swiatek at her own game. It was Barty’s forehand, rather than Swiatek’s, that was the difference-maker.
“I think the more you play someone in match play, you learn tendencies, you pick up on patterns and things like that under pressure,” Barty said.
“I think it was a learning curve for both of us. Yeah, I’m sure that match tonight will be the first of many that we’ll play.”
Barty will move on to face Petra Kvitova in the quarterfinals. Swiatek will surely redouble her preparation for her title defense in Paris. Tennis fans will look forward to more, and more thrilling, editions of this match-up to come.