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Iga Swiatek’s Roland Garros is conjuring thoughts of great champions
It was the 19-year-old’s first Grand Slam semifinal. But the way she played, you’d think it was her 10th.
October 08, 2020
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Tennis matches are won by breaking an opponent’s game apart. At the world-class level, that usually calls for taking away response time, sometimes by hitting the ball harder, sometimes by hitting it earlier. Do both, as Iga Swiatek has done now for two weeks at Roland Garros, and you enter rare territory.
Today, the 19-year-old Swiatek took just 70 minutes to comprehensively dismantle qualifier Nadia Podoroska, 6-2, 6-1.
“Yeah, it seems unreal,” said Swiatek—who has also reached the doubles semifinals with American Nicole Melichar. “On one hand I know that I can play great tennis. On the other hand, it’s kind of surprising for me. I never would have thought that I’m going to be in the final. It’s crazy.”
It was Swiatek’s first Grand Slam semifinal. But the way she played, you’d think it was her 10th. As was the case in her other Roland Garros matches, Swiatek took control rapidly (she hasn’t dropped a set, yet, in either singles or doubles). She broke Podoroska at 0-1. With depth, pace and accuracy, Swiatek thoroughly commanded just about every inch of real estate with relentless and oppressive firepower.
Because Podoroska was so frequently rushed, when she did have those rare moments to gather herself, she often overhit. Such was the case when Swiatek served at 3-1, 30-40. On this prime opportunity to claw her way back into the match, Podoroska struck a forehand wide. Ditto at deuce. Holding an ad, Swiatek belted a forehand and went up 4-1. The second set flew by, too. All told, Swiatek hit 23 winners to only six for Podoroska.
For Podoroska, it had been a great run, earning her first five wins at a major, including one in the quarters over third-seeded Elina Svitolina. Having won just over $300,000 in her career prior to Roland Garros, the 23-year-old Argentine will take away more than $500,000 for her efforts in Paris and see her ranking soar from No. 131 to No. 48.
“I am enjoying what I am living,” Podoroskova said. “A few weeks. I’m happy. Even the result today wasn’t good for me, but I’m happy, too, yeah.”
Swiatek’s terrific set of skills suggests the possibility of a whole new level of power. The way she hits the ball does not give the slightest hint of a player red-lining; that is, striking so far beyond the level of her capabilities that she is certain to come to earth. This instead is a composed, technically organized application of movement, leverage and timing. To see such a high level of poise, power and precision in a teen summons up memories of champions like Pete Sampras at the 1990 US Open, Serena Williams at the 1999 US Open, Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon 2004. These three each walked on to the stage of a major final as if they had been there many times—and then won it handily. Ranked 54th in the world coming into Roland Garros, Swiatek’s run to the finals will see her crack the Top 25—and the Top 20 should she win the title.
Part of Swiatek’s rise may be her dedication to the mental game, so critical in tennis. She spoke to the benefits of her sports psychologist at Roland Garros:
A recent high-school graduate, Swiatek recently said that she had been treating 2020 as a gap year of sorts, a chance to see if she’d prefer to fully dedicate herself to WTA events or attend university. What’s happened in Paris has likely tilted Swiatek’s verdict.
“Well, right now it’s going to be hard to make a decision to go back to studying because I feel like really I can achieve big things,” she said. “But really I think if I’m going to be in a few finals of Grand Slams, it would be, like, impossible to study and playing that kind of tennis consistently. I’m just going to see how the situation develops.”
If these last two weeks are any indication, soon enough, we’ll be the ones learning from Swiatek.