Not even a grand slam champion who has carved out a reputation for being one of the top competitors around could stop a surging Iga Swiatek in the French Open final.
Swiatek raced to her first major and became Poland’s first grand slam singles winner thanks to a 6-4, 6-1 victory in Paris over Sofia Kenin, who said she was hindered by a lingering leg injury.
“I just feel like I kind of made history but I still think that (Agnieszka) Radwanska, she achieved a lot because she played on the top level of the WTA for, I don’t know, 12 years,” Swiatek said, referring to the recently retired 2012 Wimbledon finalist and top 10 regular. “I don’t even know the number.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of people who is going to compare us. But I think I have to be really consistent for the next couple years to everybody to name me like the best player in Poland because still I have a lot to do.”
But for now, Swiatek also became the first female to win the tournament without dropping a set since Justine Henin in 2007 and the youngest champion in southwest Paris since her favorite player, Rafael Nadal.
The Spaniard was also 19 in 2005.
“Every year I was watching how Rafa lifts the trophy so it’s crazy that I am in the same place,” Swiatek said during the trophy presentation.
At No. 54, no women’s player had ever been ranked as low and cradled the trophy.
If her junior career is anything to go by, none of this should be a massive surprise.
Swiatek triumphed in the Wimbledon juniors in 2018, a few weeks after capturing the junior doubles title at Roland Garros.
Sports run in her family, as her dad represented Poland in rowing at the Olympics in Seoul in 1988. He was in attendance Saturday along with other family and the player’s sports psychologist, whose birthday it was.
The one thing missing was her cat.
“I’m so happy,” Swiatek. “And I’m so glad my family was here finally.”
“It’s just overwhelming for me. Two years ago I won a junior grand slam and right now I’m here. It’s been like such a short time.”
Swiatek is good friends with Naomi Osaka, who upped her grand slam tally to three by winning the US Open last month. She is an aggressive player like her pal, seeking to dictate with her powerful, heavily spun forehand.
Fast starts have been a hallmark of her play in Paris and seemingly without any nerves in her first major final, she duly took a 3-0 lead. Maybe her pre-match song, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by rock band Guns N’Roses, has helped, although she did admit the nerves were there.
Mostly sunny conditions greeted the players in fall temperatures of around 15 degrees Celsius after the event shifted its date from late May due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was the sixth time in her seven outings Swiatek led by a break prior to the first sit down, including when she stunned pre-tournament favorite Simona Halep in the fourth round.
But the gutsy Australian Open champion did mount a comeback.
Kenin broke to stay in the set for 4-5 with a sizzling backhand return, only to drop serve immediately.
The American broke serve to start the second but once again the response was immediate from Swiatek.
Already sporting tape to her left leg, Kenin took a medical timeout at 1-2 and returned with heavy strapping but it did little to change her fortunes.
“She obviously played a really good match,” the 21-year-old said. “She’s, like, really hot right now, playing some really great tennis.
“I’m not going to use this as an excuse, but my leg obviously was not the best. It’s obviously disappointing.”
Even if she was fully healthy, Swiatek would have been difficult to stop.
During the medical timeout, some fans in attendance – they were capped at 1,000 – gave Swiatek yet more encouragement.
Swiatek sealed the contest in one hour, 24 minutes with a 25th winner – compared to only 17 unforced errors – and moments later was in the stands hugging her camp.
Even while sprinting to the final, Swiatek didn’t discount focusing on her studies if things didn’t go her way on the tour. Maybe now she will change her mind completely.
It was a rare defeat on the big stage for Kenin, who had been 5-1 in previous finals and toughed out five wins this fortnight, which didn’t help her leg.
Perhaps not even Kenin, however, would have envisaged making the last stage after losing her lone warmup match on clay 6-0 6-0 – or a double bagel – to the player Osaka beat in New York, Victoria Azarenka, in Rome.
“As some people said in Rome, lost bagel, let’s just say like that, and then I’m able to get to the finals,” said Kenin. “I think it’s a good result for me.”
“Of course I’m quite disappointed I didn’t get the title, but overall I’m going to take the positives.”
Swiatek hopes 12-time champion Nadal wins Sunday’s men’s final against Novak Djokovic, a match with heavy implications relating to the grand slam men’s leaderboard.
She achieved the first part of the double she was looking for Saturday.