October 10, 2020

Making It Look Easy

Winning a Grand Slam is hard work. Like, really, really hard work. But you might not know it from watching nineteen-year-old Iga Swiatek steamroll through the draw at the French Open this year and walk away with the title.

We've already talked about her road here -- opening with an easy win over 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova before stunning odds-on favorite Simona Halep, the woman who beat her last year, in the fourth round. She didn't lose a set at all on her way to Saturday's match, and that didn't change against reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin. After giving up an early 3-0 lead to draw even, Swiatek lost just one more game over the next hour or so, and in doing so became the first player from Poland to ever win a Major title.

Her accomplishment is made even more notable by the success she also had on the doubles court. A winner of the Girls' event with Caty McNally two years ago, this time Swiatek teamed up with U.S. Open finalist Nicole Melichar to reach the semis, playing essentially every day since the tournament started.

And rather than tire her out, it's possible all that time on court gave her an edge in the final. She's not the first player, of course, to shake off any nerves that accompany playing for the big title the first time -- Naomi Osaka, Bianca Andreescu, and even Kenin herself have not only come out the victor in their maiden Major finals, but beat women with multiple trophies already to do it. But she seemed uniquely able to put the weight of the moment aside and play like she was the one expected to win.

And maybe she was. Despite the fact that Swiatek had never won a title before Paris, only ever reaching one final at a smaller event last year in Lugano, Switzerland, after her defeat of Halep oddsmakers shifted their bets to her. After all, she's been far outhitting her current-but-climbing world #54 ranking all year -- she nearly made the quarters this year in Melbourne and put up a nice fight against eventual U.S. Open runner-up Victoria Azarenka last month, drawing praise from the former #1. And while she hasn't yet made a splash in the main draw at Wimbledon, something tells me the 2018 Girls' champion there might be one to watch in 2021.

By the way, the dominance of Swiatek both in the final and during the entire tournament shouldn't take away from the performance of Sofia Kenin, who I'd admittedly written off after she failed to impress after that magical run in Melbourne. Though she picked up a title in Lyon, she'd been otherwise pretty lackluster, getting upset in the fourth round of New York and absolutely drubbed in her Rome opener. While she had few straightforward matchs in Paris, it was encouraging to see her rebound to make her second Major final of the year. It goes a long way to showing that she's no one-hit wonder.

Of course, that challenge now falls to the most newly-crowned Slam champion. After all, out-of-nowhere winners don't always have the follow through you'd hope to see. But Swiatek's composure throughout her Roland Garros run gives me hope that we've only just started to see what she can do.

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