June 14, 2024
Iga Swiatek

Iga Swiatek got her mojo – and the number one ranking – back at the end of 2023 after a period where she defended rather than dictated her way through matches. Just weeks before protecting her Roland Garros title, she claimed a maiden Madrid Open after beating closest rival Aryna Sabalenka in an absolute thriller. Nothing is in the bag yet, apart from a handy $963,255 in prize money, but the signs of her fourth French Open in five years are good. The force is strong with this one.

There are also signs of her most deadly streak. The Pole’s ability to march through matches is legendary. Excluding the three-set victory over Beatrice Haddad Maia, the 22-year-old had only dropped 12 games en route to the final itself. On Saturday evening, the four-time slam champion had to deal with a break in the third set and three match points before finally prevailing 7-5 4-6 7-6 against the Belarusian. She has added a significant layer of steel when the chips are down.

The first time Swiatek dominated the field was back in 2022 when she enjoyed an incredible 37-match winning streak over 135 days. That included her first title in Paris when she pounded Coco Gauff for the loss of just four games. Her last defeat in the French capital was her quarter-final against Maria Sakkari in 2021. The third consecutive trophy appears to be well within range, especially as the Madrid event is proving that there is still a big gap between her and the also-rans.
The former Wimbledon junior champion must have a love affair with Paris since her debut title in 2020. The closest she came to losing her crown was against Karolina Muchova in last year’s final when she was a break down at 3-4 in the decider. “After so many ups and downs, I kind of stopped thinking about the score. I wanted to use my intuition more, because I knew that I can play a little bit better if I’m going to get a little bit more loosened up. It helped, for sure, in the third set,” she mused after the match.

When Swiatek plays without her (over)thinking cap, the results flow better. She is also creating a French Open dynasty as it was her debut slam victory. When the then 19-year-old beat Sofia Kenin 6-4 6-1, she hadn’t dropped a set all tournament. It was a similar story before she played Muchova last year. There is something about the Parisian surface that carries the Pole to a different clarity.

Iga Swiatek has a perfect record in four major final appearances, leaning heavily on the clay for 75 per cent of those successes. Where she appears vulnerable on faster courts and prone to being ousted by outsiders – her Australian Open exit to Linda Noskova is a case in point – the clay is where she sets foot far more easily having won all the recognized ATP titles. The diminutive but resilient Justine Henin was the last female to win three French Opens in a row between 2005 and 2007 and there is more than a passing similarity between the two players.

There’s nothing invincible about the World No. 1 when she steps on to other major surfaces. She hasn’t gone beyond the last eight at Wimbledon or past the semis at Melbourne. Then again, there is at least a decade at the top left if she wants it.

It is difficult to look beyond three players when looking at who has the right stuff to stop her. Sabalenka is firing up her competitive instincts despite her traumatic times. It would take a huge effort to absorb two weeks under the strictest of limelight when Roland Garros kicks off. Gauff is the other huge contender although she hasn’t won on the red stuff since 2021. If anyone is qualified, it is Elena Rybakina who has a favorable 4-2 head to head record.

When the French Open starts, all bets are off about the favorite. Should Swiatek play her natural game and not get bogged down about a target on her back, then this could quite realistically become her paradise. “I was, like, ‘Okay, whatever. It’s not the first time in my life. I’m just going to go for it,’” she said on facing the match points in the Spanish capital. That’s the spirit that will prevail.

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