By Giri Nathan
There are hot streaks, there are breakout tournaments, and then there is whatever the hell 19-year-old Iga Swiatek is doing to the French Open right now. Last week we paid homage to an ornery youngster who barnstormed the French Open in 2017, but Swiatek’s run to the final has been even more startling thus far, and deserves a full statistical appreciation. She hasn’t dropped a set. She only even gave up four games in a set once. She has conceded 23 games total, for an average of 1.9 games per set. Only the Williams sisters have lost fewer games en route to a major final in the 21st century, as writer and Racquet contributor Alex Macpherson pointed out, and no woman has lost fewer games en route to her first major final since Mary Pierce lost 10 in 1994. Simona Halep came to Paris as the top seed and prohibitive favorite, had 13 wins straight as she squared up with Swiatek in the fourth round…and lost 1 and 2.
When Halep and Swiatek met at last year’s French Open, the rout went in the opposite direction: a breadstick and a bagel. In the interim, Swiatek…completed high school. The teenager entered this tournament ranked No. 54 in the world, and while she had some solid results on the 2019 summer hard courts—I first saw her play there—she gave off no indications that her game was mature enough to tear up a major for two weeks. Suddenly she has leaped up to No. 24 in the live rankings, and she enjoyed no shortcuts along the way, either. Because her native Poland hosts no big tournaments, she didn’t benefit from wild cards into WTA events on her way up, ensuring that she would spend more time churning through qualifying rounds than similarly talented prospects in Western Europe or America. As of next week, that anonymous grind is likely behind her. And her first WTA title, should it not come at Roland-Garros this Saturday, can’t be far off.
Most important for our purposes as sofa dwellers, Swiatek is a delight to watch. She presents yet more evidence for my thinly supported but firmly held belief that an extremely heavy Western forehand can do a lot of damage on the WTA, or what I like to call “The Jen Brady Conjecture.” Swiatek’s topspin stands out from the pack, even on the low-bouncing clay of these past two weeks. It lets her produce gorgeous cross-court short angles, maintain a healthy margin on winners in open court, and change up the shape of her shots over the course of a neutral rally. I can only imagine how disruptive that topspin could be at a French Open that was actually played in a hot June; maybe Swiatek’s favorite tennis player, Rafael Nadal, can advise. The backhand is also sturdy and spinny, and the makings of a versatile net and finesse game are all there, too. Her experience in the frontcourt will only get sharper with doubles play, and, somehow in the midst of all this, she’s playing the women’s doubles semifinal, too. Only the Swiatek serve really calls out for improvement—more pop and precision—and then you have a pretty fearsome all-court player with a game that should translate well to hard court. I will happily sign up to watch that forehand for another decade, and we all better nail down the pronunciation before she plays major final No. 1.
Above: Iga Swiatek celebrates her victory over Nadia Podoroska in the semi-finals at Roland-Garros. (Getty Images)