Breakthrough 2020 French Open title just the beginning for Iga Swiatek


In the middle of Iga Swiatek‘s blistering second set against Sofia Kenin in the French Open women’s final on Saturday, NBC commentator John McEnroe made a bold prediction.

“The way she’s playing right now, it would be hard to imagine she wouldn’t win half-a-dozen majors,” said the men’s tennis legend. “It’s incredible.”

Moments later, the 19-year-old hit a forehand winner to the corner and crouched to the ground in disbelief. Swiatek had won the final six games of the match to earn her first Grand Slam title 6-4, 6-1 in an hour and 24 minutes over Kenin, the reigning Australian Open champion. She shrugged with a wide smile, expressing her disbelief after becoming the first Polish singles player to win a major championship, and ran into the stands — getting lost more than once in the unfamiliar stadium — to hug her family and team.

She may have been surprised by the day’s outcome, but few else in Paris were.

Unseeded and unheralded, Swiatek arrived in Paris ranked No. 54 in the world. She had never advanced past the fourth round of a major or won a title of any kind on the WTA Tour. She upset Markéta Vondroušová, a 2019 finalist at Roland Garros, in her opener. In the fourth round, Swiatek dismantled 2018 champion and top-seeded Simona Halep, 6-1, 6-2. She never dropped a set during the tournament and conceded just 28 games — the fifth-fewest ever by a winner at the French Open.

Despite her lack of experience, Swiatek was the betting favorite entering Saturday’s championship match.

As Swiatek stood on the podium on Court Philippe Chatrier with the Polish national anthem playing over the speakers, tennis crowned its newest star. In women’s tennis there have been several first-time major champions over the past few years, including Kenin, but few have been as convincing and destined for more.

The tweets and praise were immediate on social media.

“A joy to watch — makes it look so easy,” wrote two-time US Open victor Tracy Austin. “More Majors ahead!!”

Chris Evert, an 18-time major winner, said: “What a sterling two weeks of brilliant tennis. Many, many more GS titles to come.”

Swiatek steamrolled through the tournament with steely resolve and clinical technique. Working closely with a sports psychologist during the past two years, Swiatek’s mental strength was as impressive as her talent. On her “off” days, she dominated on the doubles court with American Nicole Melichar. The pair had never played together before Paris but advanced to the women’s doubles semifinals before losing in a three-set battle on Friday. She credited their play together for improving her game. It is hard to argue — she won six of her seven net points in the final.

There were questions about Swiatek’s nerves entering the biggest match of her career. She silenced those quickly, winning 12 of the first 18 points and blasted out to a 3-0 lead in just eight minutes. Kenin, known for her tenacity and grit on the court, fought back as she often does, storming back to take the next three games.

As Kenin vocally expressed her frustration and tossed her racket throughout the match, Swiatek remained calm. During the breaks, Swiatek sat in her chair and closed her eyes, meditating and saying affirmations to herself.

“I just did everything I’ve done in the previous rounds,” Swiatek said. “I focused on technique and tactics. I tried to get rid of expectations, you know, just play one ball after another. I didn’t really care if I’m going to lose or win.

“So really, I think the main key was just keeping my expectations low.”

That laid-back, no-pressure attitude proved effective. When Kenin left the court for a medical timeout due to a left leg injury at 2-1 in the second set, Swiatek remained on the court and practiced her serve. While the disruption may have unfocused other players, and was questioned by the broadcast team, Swiatek needed just 12 more minutes of play to close out the match.

“I feel like she served really well,” said a disappointed Kenin. “She dictated really well with her forehand, especially in the first set. A few shots here and there just didn’t go my way. She played some great tennis.”

Swiatek, who finished her high school studies during tennis’ suspension due to the coronavirus pandemic, became the youngest winner at Roland Garros since Rafael Nadal, her hero, in 2005. He will play for his 13th French Open title and record-tying 20th major trophy on Sunday against Novak Djokovic. Swiatek said she hopes to attend but said she wasn’t sure if she could get a ticket during a postmatch interview.

Swiatek more than doubled her career earnings during her stint in Paris thanks to the $1.89 million paycheck and is expected to rise to No. 17 in Monday’s rankings. Her life is forever changed, but she is far from content.

“I know my game isn’t developed perfectly,” she said. “Also, I think the biggest change for me is going to be to be consistent. I think this is what women’s tennis is struggling with. That’s why we have so many new Grand Slam winners because we are not, like, as consistent as Rafa [Nadal], Roger [Federer], and Novak [Djokovic].

“That’s why my goal is going to be to be consistent. It’s going to be really hard to achieve that.”

The daughter of an Olympic rower, Swiatek initially started in swimming but moved over to tennis after her older sister started playing. She grew up playing on clay and won the French Open junior doubles title with American Caty McNally in 2018, as well as the Wimbledon girls’ singles title the following month. Two years later, she’s a Grand Slam champion — a feat she called “overwhelming” and “crazy” when addressing the crowd immediately after the win.

She said seeing the bevy of other young players like Kenin, 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu and her friend and three-time major winner Naomi Osaka, helped fuel her belief that she could do it, too.

“For sure it’s inspiring,” she said. “I know that there are no limits. Even though you’re really young and you’re an underdog, you can do a lot in a sport like tennis.

“Well, on one hand it’s pretty inspiring. Sometimes I caught myself visualizing that I’m also winning a Grand Slam, but on the other hand it was also, like, really far away. Right now when I’m here, and I’m a Grand Slam champion, it’s crazy. You believe in things but in the back of your head you know that there’s going to be a huge amount of work that you have to do to win that. Then after two weeks of great playing, you already have it. It’s just — I don’t know — overwhelming.”

Well-liked by her peers and fans for her easy-going personality and eclectic — and much-talked about — taste in music, Swiatek has the makings of a superstar and the game to support it. She came to Paris as somewhat of an unknown but leaves as an immediate contender in any tournament she enters. She was openly questioning how long she would be playing on tour and discussing potentially attending university just weeks ago. But she wasn’t thinking about any of that after Saturday’s victory.

“Right now I’m just going to, you know, enjoy the moment,” she said. “I’m going to think about my future goals later.”

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