Polish teen Iga Swiatek conquers Paris

9 months ago 42
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The only time Iga Swiatek could be accused of looking lost on Saturday was when she tried to make her way into the stands of Court Philippe-Chatrier, a broad grin pasted on her face and in search of her family. She found them eventually, after a couple of missteps along dead ends and wrong entryways. But for nearly an hour and a half before that and on the grandest stage of her young life, the 19-year-old from Poland couldn’t put a foot wrong even if she tried.

So much so that when a crunching forehand winner fizzed past Sofia Kenin’s racquet one last time in the women’s final of the French Open, Swiatek not only won the match but the tournament without dropping a set. If that isn’t incredible enough then try wrapping your head around this: Roland Garros was Swiatek’s first-ever career title, which in turn made her the first-ever Pole (male or female) to win a Grand Slam.

“I don’t know what’s going on. It’s so overwhelming for me. Two years ago I won the junior title here and now I have this,” Swiatek said shortly before collecting the trophy from former champion Mary Pierce. Pierce in fact held the record for least games dropped by a woman en route to the Roland Garros final—10. That year, 1994, the Frenchwoman lost the title match to Arantxa Sanchez Vicario and the record eventually counted for nothing.

No such problems for Swiatek, who had dropped just 23 games leading up to Saturday and USA’s Kenin added just five more to that tally. It was rock-and-roll tennis through and through for the self-confessed Pearl Jam fan in her 6-4, 6-1 win—a best-of Swiatek concert that, by the end, turned Kenin into a mere spectator. “I really only wanted to play aggressive,” she said, just as she had all tournament long.

When that tactic had helped Swiatek dispose of former French Open winner and top-seed Simona Halep by conceding just three games in the fourth round, staying aggressive was going to remain key in tackling the reigning Australian Open winner in Kenin. And all of five minutes into the contest, Swiatek had taken a 3-0 lead.

It wasn’t quite as simple as those numbers suggest on court. With a long shadow drawn over exactly half the surface and Kenin squinting into the sun as she served, the American was broken in her first service game. Now it was Swiatek’s turn to blink into the light to consolidate the break, and she kept Kenin in the shadows, literally and figuratively.

Unlike Swiatek, Kenin knows the pressures that come with playing in a Slam final. That experience, coupled with Swiatek’s sudden loss of range and rhythm brought Kenin right back into the fight with a break and a hold. But even when the first set was all square at 3-3, Swiatek had been far more reliable than Kenin during the long rallies. And the exchanges were about to get pretty damn long during the pivotal eighth game.

On serve at 3-4, Kenin held out a new ball in Swiatek’s direction before tossing up her serve. But the extra layer of fuzz assisted Swiatek’s strokeplay instead. The Pole’s power, laced with heavy revs of top-spin, is seldom seen outside the men’s game. With the new balls pinging smoothly off Swiatek’s racquet and landing deep in the American’s court, Kenin soon found herself in a marathon deuce battle.

On one particular breakpoint, Kenin endured a rally of 19 strokes—the longest of the match—to return the game to deuce. But it had winded her and in the fifth instance of ‘Advantage, Swiatek’, the Pole changed direction in a medium-long rally with an up-the-line forehand to break Kenin’s resolve and serve for the set at 5-3. That Swiatek couldn’t hold is another matter, but neither could Kenin at 4-5 and the first set belonged to the younger of the two young girls.

Kenin and Swiatek traded breaks and not groundstrokes to begin the second set, making it five breaks on the bounce. That pattern ensured the one who would hold their serve would be more likely to hold their nerve. Next game, Swiatek held serve and didn’t look back; not even when Kenin immediately called for an injury-timeout that forced her off court.

While Kenin’s thigh was being treated, Swiatek thundered down serves to a phantom opponent to keep busy. The practice came good when Kenin returned to the clay eight minutes later. Kenin didn’t hold serve again and Swiatek didn’t drop hers. In just 24 minutes, the torture of the second and final set had ended for the heavily-strapped American.

As Kenin wept courtside, Swiatek made her way back from her Olympian father (rower in the 1988 Seoul Games) and turned speechless behind the microphone. The moment had finally sunk in. “Sorry,” she said. “It is just difficult to get my thoughts together right now.” For exactly two weeks prior in Paris, that wasn’t one of Swiatek’s problems.

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