The focus shifted onto the Iga Swiatek forehand. Ons Jabeur ripped a flat cross court onto the right wing of the Pole. And then another. And another. It was a change in strategy from the Tunisian, to take the ball away from Swiatek’s steadier backhand – which had wreaked havoc in the previous few points.
Jabeur was serving at 30-40, 2-3 in the second set of the US Open women’s singles final and facing a break.
But the strategy worked. As Jabeur moved inch by inch closer to the baseline, and then inside it, to take away time from Swiatek in that multiple-shot forehand cross-court, the error came and the break point was saved.
Across the net, Swiatek took note of the tactic. On the very next point, the top seed bludgeoned a few forehand strokes before finishing neatly with a forehand inside-out winner that fell just inside the line. She would go on to win that game. And later, complete a 6-2, 7-6 (5) win over Jabeur to win her third Grand Slam title.
But this was a Grand Slam run quite unlike the previous two she had emerged victorious in – at the French Open in 2020 and 2022. Those were dominant title drives. At 2020 Roland Garros, she was unseeded and won without dropping a set. In June this year, it was only Qinwen Zheng who could resist the world No 1 for a while by winning the first set in a tiebreaker in their fourth-round clash – she would lose the second and third 6-0, 6-2.
This US Open though, the 21-year-old had not been at her best. She had been error-prone – she committed 167 unforced errors against the 118 winners she hit in the six matches before the final. In the final itself, she committed 30 unforced errors to 19 winners.
At this US Open, she had been more vulnerable. And Swiatek has accepted it. This tournament had been more about problem-solving for her.
“For sure, the weather changed because it wasn’t that hot in the second part of the tournament,” she said in the press conference after the final.
“It was helpful. Sometimes we have many things actually to think about on court. Sometimes I wasn’t able to do it every time, so I was making a lot of mistakes. Then I finally accepted that I’m going to make those mistakes. It’s not going to be like on slow surface where I can build a rally, then be really calm and just finish.
“It’s going to be more risk and less control, for sure. So I accepted that. That was the thing that actually let me be more free.”
Being able to play herself out of trouble is something that was not common in the early stage of what has been an extraordinary season for her. That’s quite simply because she rarely lost control of the match. She was always in charge. Especially in finals.
Before the match on Saturday night at the Arthur Ashe Stadium, Swiatek had a 16-1 record in finals at all senior-level tournaments – including the ITF Futures events. The only final she lost was her first summit clash at the WTA level, at 2019 Lugano.
Since then, she had won nine finals in straight sets and dropped only 32 games in those 18 sets. On Saturday, when Jabeur took her to the tiebreaker, it was the first time Swiatek had lost five games in a set in a final.
Earlier this year, in an interview with the WTA Insider, she was asked if she felt she had been on ‘autopilot’ mode given the way she had been dismantling opponents in that historic 37-match unbeaten run. Across the Atlantic, there was turbulence though.
She had lost the first set in her first-round match to Germany’s Jule Niemeier, then fought back and won the deciding set 6-0. In the quarterfinal, she put her head down and took control at the right time to win a second set tiebreak against Jessica Pegula.
In the semifinal, against the hard-hitting Aryna Sabalenka, she lost the first set and promptly took a bathroom break to compose herself.
“When I was younger, all I would do in the bathroom between sets after I lost was cry. But this time I could think about what to change and actually problem solve,” she said after her semifinal win.
“Earlier I felt like my emotions were taking over and I was panicking a little bit when I was losing. For sure I grew up, I learned a lot. And the work we’ve put with Daria [Abramowicz, her sports psychologist] for sure helped. Right now, it’s just easier for me to actually logically think about what I can change. And I feel like I have more skills to do that [rather] than one type of way to play.”
She was down 4-2 later in the third set of the semifinal, but then turned the screws and won the next four games to reach her third Grand Slam final.
By no means was the final smooth either.
Jabeur did have a slow start, especially with the Tunisian – who will be the new world No 2 on Monday – not finding consistency on her serve.
But Swiatek was ready to run, sprint up to the net, charge from side to side to put more balls back in court. And then use the forehand to create openings if not finish off a point. If it meant making a few errors, so be it.
Eventually it was a cross court forehand from Swiatek that set up the unforced error from Jabeur, on her second championship point, that secured the win.
Immediately she sank to the floor, wept those happy tears and went to celebrate with her team.
Swiatek being Swiatek later joked “I’m really glad it’s not in cash,” when she was handed the cheque of $2.6 million.
Winning the title made her the first player since Angelique Kerber in 2016 to win two women’s singles titles in the same year, and the first world No 1 since Serena Williams in 2014 to win the US Open.
This was a new chapter in her tennis development and education. And a rather difficult one at a Slam not very easy to win. The giant cauldron that is the Arthur Ashe Stadium echoes at the slightest of sounds, and there was plenty as a capacity crowd came in to watch the final. But Swiatek was anyway in problem-solving mode this past fortnight.
“I needed to stay composed and focus on the goals,” she said during the trophy presentation.
“It’s New York - it’s so loud, it’s so crazy. It’s really mind-blowing for me. I’m really proud I could handle it mentally.”
For her, winning a hard-court Slam is also validation that she isn’t a clay-court wonder. Of course, she did win three back-to-back WTA 1000 events on hard courts – Doha, Indian Wells and Miami. But winning a Slam is another beast. And she proved she could handle it.
“I also made it to the semifinal of Australian Open. But I wasn’t sure if I was on the level yet to win actually a Grand Slam, especially on US Open where the surface is so fast,” she said. “It’s something that I wasn’t expecting for sure. It’s also like a confirmation for me that sky is the limit. I’m proud, also surprised a little bit, just happy that I was able to do that.”
At 21, she’s still only getting started.