Iga Swiatek’s march to the title at Roland Garros can be framed in a number of jaw-dropping headlines – for example, did you know that she is now the second-best Roland Garros women’s champion in the Open Era, behind Steffi Graf’s legendary run of 1988, in terms of “games lost” on the way to the title? (source: Gökalp Taşkesen – @gokotaskes on Twitter). Chris Evert also lost 28 games during her run to the Roland Garros 1979 title. However, Evert played six rounds en route to the title in 1979, one less than Swiatek did this year.
I have no doubt that you will find each one of those headlines or takes mentioned somewhere in the myriad of articles popping up over the next day or two, so for this piece, I shall delve into the match itself without further ado.
It began with a second-serve backhand return into the net by Kenin and ended three points later – read: blank game – with a 1-2 punch forehand winner by Swiatek. The 2018 Wimbledon junior girls’ champion would then go on to hit two more clean winners; force Kenin into errors on three other winner attempts; and blitz to a 3-0 lead in eight minutes, winning 12 out of the first 15 points of the match.
If you watched Kenin’s matches in the past, or better yet, in this tournament (see my match report of her second-round comeback win against Ana Bogdan for example), you are probably more than aware of her impressive problem-solving prowess. Swiatek’s top-notch start to the match meant that Kenin had to immediately shift her high IQ into fifth gear and come up with answers before the set completely slipped out of her hands.
I cannot say for a fact that it was her intention, because I cannot read her mind, but it seemed that she first modified the placement of her second serves, aiming a lot more for the sidelines in the service box in the 0-3 game than she did in her first serving game at 0-1. Six out of Kenin’s seven serves in this game – including a second serve – landed on the sidelines, three wide, three to the middle, and had Swiatek stretching or lunging for each return. This meant that the Polish player had to first worry about getting the return back in the court rather than taking the initiative in the rally with the first shot, the latter being the main block on which she had built her early 3-0 lead. Kenin got on the scoreboard with the service hold.
Next, she had to solve the return portion of the puzzle which also centered on disrupting Swiatek’s path to controlling the point early, notably with her serve and 1-2 punch. Kenin’s plan A usually includes aggressive returns to begin with, but in this particular game, she appeared to target the lines for direct winners on second-serve returns. Swiatek missed her first serve three times in the game.
In the first one of those points at 0-15, Kenin hit a rocket crosscourt backhand return that landed just an inch or two behind the baseline. In the second one at 15-15, she smacked a backhand inside-out return for a clean winner. Swiatek didn’t even get a chance to move toward the ball. The third time Swiatek had to hit a second serve in the game, it was break point for Kenin at 15-40, and she didn’t even have to hit a return because, probably fearing another return of the sort, Swiatek tried to put extra power into her second serve and double-faulted as a result (one of those simple “double fault” entries into the stats that, in reality, harbors a complicated backstory).
When Kenin began the 2-3 game with yet another second serve to the sideline, making Swiatek lunge for the forehand return and miss deep, she was well on her way to equalizing the scoreboard. It took Sofia 12 minutes to recover from the early break, four minutes longer than it took Swiatek to grab the three-game lead, but the mission was accomplished and the scoreboard read 3-3 twenty minutes into the match. Swiatek’s game had also turned erratic by that time compared to the beginning. She had 4 winners and zero unforced errors (by my count as always) in the first three games and forced the American into an abundance of errors with her aggressive shots. In the next three, she struck only one winner and made four unforced errors, most likely as the ripple effect of Kenin’s modifications.
Then, came the always-paramount 3-3 game (I find calling it “the 3-3 game” more appropriate than “the seventh game” because not every single seventh game carries the same significance). Little did anyone know at that point that Swiatek would not only pocket that game, but also catapult herself to the title by winning nine out of the next 11 games!
Swiatek had to stand tall in that seventh game, especially after losing her break lead and double-faulting at 30-15. She was staring at the 30-30 point at 3-3, the first moment in the match when she was in danger of falling behind in the scoreline, magnified by the context of how the score got there and the stage on which it took place. Swiatek stepped up, made her first serve, and calmly hit a drop shot for a winner on the second shot, catching Kenin so off-guard that the American never attempted to run for it although it landed close to the service line.
Then, at 40-40 two points later, once again facing the possibility of trailing for the first time in the match, Swiatek hit a second serve and weathered the storm of two deep baseline drives by Kenin, before producing a spectacular forehand crosscourt winner of her own to grab the ad-in lead again. Two points later, at deuce again and with the same danger faced, Swiatek hit another terrific backhand drop shot. Swiatek held serve without ever allowing Kenin a chance to grab the lead in the match, even if it’s by one point! How is that for clutch shot-making?
That was the last time Kenin got anywhere near a chance to grab the lead. When the players switched ends at 4-3, the signs for what was to come, a runaway victory by Swiatek, were staring right at anyone who wanted to see them – I didn’t.
Nobody on earth could have gotten me to believe at that juncture of the match that we were about to witness total domination by Iga for the remainder of the match.
Swiatek, as explosive as her game can be, had also been the craftier player on the court until that point. People had talked about Kenin’s drop-shot dexterity, but Swiatek showcased hers on Saturday. Kenin had put on display her ability to control the baseline for six matches, but Swiatek matched that and outplayed her in that department as well.
For those readers who prefer numbers with observations, consider this: At 4-3, Swiatek led 14-4 over Kenin in rallies that went over four shots. Without even considering the names involved in the duel, show me someone who claims to predict, seven games into a Major final, this particular stat to be that lopsided in favor of the player with no titles and no prior second-week experience in Majors over the player with a Major title and four other WTA trophies on her resumé, I will show you a liar.
Kenin who missed a forehand sitter to go down 3-4, was visibly under pressure and showing it in her game. She made a couple of forehand unforced errors trying to go for the lines again, in order to avoid a possible acceleration by Swiatek. Another contested deuce game was on the menu.
On game point for Kenin at ad-in, she hit a great backhand drop shot (her bread-and-butter shot for two weeks in Paris) that Swiatek not only got to, but also scooped for a perfect placement to the corner**, making Henin stretch and slide for a backhand cross-court passing shot attempt. A quick recovery to the middle of the net by Swiatek allowed her to hit a stellar backhand drop volley for a winner and stay in the game.
**I would call this point not only one of the great points of this final, but also one of the most educational ones. Swiatek gives a free clinic on how to handle your opponent’s effective drop shot that you can only get to on the full run and contact way below the net. Most people attempt to drop it back over the net, which is often the wrong choice because your opponent had probably moved inside the court a few steps while you are sprinting forward to get to the drop shot, in anticipation of you possibly doing just that, or bunting the ball in the air to get it over the net so they can catch it as a volley and place it to the open court before you can recover. Some people will try to hit an extreme topspin shot with a heavy wrist-flick; if they make it, it makes the highlight reel, but it’s a low-probability shot and will most likely end in an error, because the angle does not allow much chance of you hitting a winner from that low a contact point and that close to the net. Or… you can do what Swiatek did on that point: not go for the headline shot, but a sensible one that places the ball deep down-the-line (do NOT go cross-court and give your opponent a wide-open down the line target to pass you with). That shot will also give you the time to recover from your full-speed sprint and position yourself closer to the middle of the net for a possible volley or an overhead.
That game featured five deuces and some first-rate rallies won by both women… but one thing was clear: Kenin brought her best to the table to stay alive in that game. Yet, Swiatek answered the call each time, and then some. Don’t take my word for it, just watch the point that ended it in Swiatek’s favor. Kenin threw everything but the kitchen sink at her, but Swiatek answered the call each time. It ended in a desperation error by Kenin, almost as if to ask, “What on earth can I possibly do to win this point?”
The two players traded service breaks over the next two games (breaks were common occurrences in this match) and Swiatek took the set lead on three straight errors by Kenin, who may have felt at that moment that this was beginning of the end for her, rather than just the end of the first set. Swiatek was better than her opponent in every aspect of the game in that set, not to mention her success coming forward. She won five out of six points in which she decided to approach the net, winning most on direct approach winners or on errors by the opponent off her approach shots.
Yet, Swiatek’s best was yet to come apparently, because the last three games of the match put on display her stunning combination of power, touch and all-court game. There is not much to describe here, and it could be Shakespeare, for all I care, who attempts to do so. Even then, it would still not compare to seeing it with your own eyes. You just have to watch those last few games and enjoy it!
If you are like me, when they end, you may find yourself wondering why on earth can you not be given the pleasure to watch this type of tennis one more set, or two more, or possibly three more. Yes, I am going to beat that drum again: Feel free to skip the rest of this write-up if you prefer to pass. But for those who remain here, let’s see what could possibly happen if the women’s final was played best of five sets. Here are three basic possibilities:
(1) Swiatek cruises to another easy set win and takes the match in straight sets.
Great! If that’s the case, as a tennis fan, I am all for watching another set of what I saw this wonderful, talented player do for two sets. I don’t see how any tennis fan would refuse that. I don’t see how women’s tennis would not come out the winner in that case either.
(2) Kenin digs deep and finds a way to make the third set very contested, either losing it in a tiebreaker or extending to a fourth set.
Great again! I’d love to see Kenin do what she does best: Find answers, let alone observe her never-give-up attitude and see if Swiatek can remain as resolved over three sets as she did over the first two. If it went to a tiebreaker, how would Swiatek — who never even had to play a 7-5 set at this tournament — handle that when it is the most precious tiebreaker of her career? I can add to the various dimensions of this possibility, but I’ll simply remind you that tennis and tennis fans would once again be the winners.
(3) Kenin stages an incredible comeback over the next two sets and we have a fifth and final set for the title of Roland Garros, possibly one with a dramatic fifth set, to be remembered and revered for ages.
I sound like a broken record but, great again! Do I even need to explain why? Or point out that once again, tennis – women’s tennis specifically – would be the overwhelming winner, closely followed by tennis fans all around the globe. To provide a parallel for this, did you watch Djokovic vs Tsitsipas on Friday? A routine two-set cruise turned into an exciting match in the third set, and into a thriller in the fourth. I’d even argue that the two sets of Kenin vs Swiatek were more fascinating to watch then the first two sets of the Djokovic-Tsitsipas match in many ways. Yet, the former had to stop while a player was putting forth possibly the best 15 minutes of tennis in the tournament. The latter, a match of average excitement with expected developments through the first two sets, was allowed to continue. It transformed into one of the best matches of the tournament, more likely to be discussed in its details in the coming weeks, months, and years than any other so far in this second week.
In any case, congratulations Iga Swiatek! Her two sets on Saturday — a tough battle in set one, a brilliant flourish in set two — bore the mark of the fully deserving champion she is.