In Paris, Swiatek on the cusp of joining a league of legends | Tennis News - Hindustan Times

In Paris, Swiatek on the cusp of joining a league of legends

ByRutvick Mehta
May 24, 2024 09:16 PM IST

The world no.1 will bid to become the first woman to walk away with three straight French Open titles since Henin in 2007

Such has been the Rafa-sized influence of one player at Roland Garros that conversations and celebrations around the others invariably go under the radar.

Poland's Iga Swiatek celebrates during French Open 2023(AP)
Poland's Iga Swiatek celebrates during French Open 2023(AP)

About time we talk Iga Swiatek. She’s on the cusp of joining Justine Henin, having completed a run last ticked off by Serena Williams. Being mentioned in the same league as these legends is no mean feat, especially on clay and in the modern women’s game where holding on to trophies has proven far tougher than winning them.

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That’s where Swiatek stands out at French Open. The two-time defending champion remains the woman to beat going for a three-peat in Paris, a testament to the world No. 1’s present form and preceding grip on the clay-court Slam no woman had been able to win twice in a row in 16 years.

Until the Pole did her dance on the dirt last year, gobbling up three bagels (6-0 set victories) while littering just one set in defending her crown. Swiatek will now bid to become the first woman to walk away with three straight French Open titles since Henin in 2007. Only one other woman has done that in the Open era (Monica Seles, from 1990 to 1992), while Serena was the last woman to win three on the bounce in any Slam a decade ago (US Open, from 2012 to 2014).

Add Swiatek's first Roland Garros title in 2020 as a teen and such stranglehold on a Slam doesn't come about too often in the women’s game. Certainly not in recent times.

Even rarer? A woman sweeping clay-court titles in Madrid, Rome and Paris in the same season. Only Serena has done that in 2013. Swiatek has knocked off Madrid and Rome in 2024 and, at the doorsteps of Paris, is carrying that momentum, form and belief.

After a shock third-round exit at the Australian Open, Swiatek picked herself up in no time. A hard-court title in Doha in her next tournament followed, and then the Indian Wells trophy. Clay is where she truly comes into her own, like she did in the two major WTA tournaments leading into the French Open. She breezed through Madrid and Rome dropping just two sets (none in Rome), defeating Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka in both finals and becoming just the third woman to bag the "dirty double" after Dinara Safina (2009) and Serena (2013).

Smooth and sublime in Paris, Swiatek is 28-2 in her five appearances at French Open, the best win-loss ratio by a woman in her first 30 matches after Seles and Chris Evert. The 22-year-old's movement on clay is exceptional, her power and precision from the baseline excellent and defence efficient. She can slide and smash alike, feeling at home on clay.

No wonder Evert, a record seven-time French Open champion, told the Associated Press she believes Swiatek can go past her. Or that Amelie Mauresmo, the former French world No. 1 and current French Open tournament director, doesn’t see her “stopping any time soon”.

“How she plays on clay, and how she's able to play in Roland Garros — not only her game but the pressure she now starts to face when she gets to Roland Garros and how she handles that — it shows that she can have much more," Mauresmo told the French Open podcast.

“I love seeing her play at Roland Garros and on clay. She looks like she has a special state of mind there. So yeah, she's impressive and she's coming as a favourite once again this year.”

A tricky draw, however, will test the defending champion. After the first round, four-time Slam winner Naomi Osaka, on the comeback trail with some good wins in Rome, possibly awaits. So does 2021 champion Barbora Krejcikova, who has beaten Swiatek in their last two meetings, two rounds later.

Her more familiar foes, should the seedings live up to status, could be around too. Sabalenka, dangerous on hard courts who is yet to go beyond the semi-finals at French Open, has felt better on the dirt this year. She reached the final in Madrid and Rome only to meet the Swiatek wall. US Open champion Coco Gauff has entered the second week in Paris for the last three years — she lost to Swiatek in the 2022 final — and is wiser by Slam winning experience now. Rybakina hasn't quite roared at Roland Garros but comes with a clay-court title this season.

Eye on the Olympics

Swiatek, though, has extra incentive to excel in Paris this year. A couple of months later, she would be back on the clay courts of Roland Garros for the Olympics, which is a big goal for her. More so with her father being an Olympian — Tomasz was a member of Poland’s Quadruple Sculls men’s rowing team in the 1988 Seoul Games — and the Tokyo Games ending in disappointment (Swiatek lost in the second round).

“In Tokyo, I remember how stressful it was," she said on Thursday. "This year I’m trying to really keep my expectations low but really work hard to be prepared for the Olympics."

A third straight French Open triumph would be ideal preparation.

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