Two weeks back, as previews were written for the delayed French Open, the final Grand Slam of the year, the basis of analysis was player performance in the very limited clay court season this year.
But in yet another reminder of the glorious uncertainty of sport and even more glaring unpredictability of women’s tennis, the final contenders in Paris are Sofia Kenin and Iga Switaek – both who lost the only match they played on clay at Italian Open.
While the 19-year-old from Poland lost a close match to Arantxa 7-6(5), 6-3, the 21-year-old American was crushed 6-0, 6-0 by Victoria Azarenka in a result that stirred the usual debate on erratic one-time Grand Slam champions.
Now, the two will face each other in their first French Open final, four years after they played each other in the juniors event. This is the first Grand Slam title clash to feature two players aged 21 or under since Maria Sharapova beat fellow 20-year-old Ana Ivanovic at the 2008 Australian Open.
Talk about bouncing back on clay.
The semi-finals on Thursday saw both register straight-set wins as Swiatek beat qualifier Nadia Podoroska 6-2, 6-1 while Kenin got the better of Petra Kvitova 6-4, 7-5 in only the fourth match between seeds at Roland Garros.
In both matches, the defining quality of both finalists was on full display. Swiatek was all angles and attacks while Kenin relied on her variety and redirection to dismantle Kvitova’s game-plan.
But their roads so far and responses to situations have been anything but similar as the 54th-ranked Swiatek is yet to drop a set in the tournament while world No 6 Kenin was pushed to three-setters in all but two matches.
Such contrasts in form and style make for an intriguing final.
Swiatek sails through
Only 19 and with a best result of Round 4 at Grand Slams so far, the 19-year-old has played with all the command and confidence of a top seed on the Parisian clay.
In 2019, she made the last 16 of a Major for the first time but lost in just 45 minutes to Simona Halep, managing to win just one game.
In 2020, she has dropped just 23 games in 12 sets across her six matches, which includes lopsided 6-1, 6-2 victories over both 2018 champion and top seed Halep as well as 2019 runner-up and 15th seed Marketa Vondrousova. Both these are genuinely strong clay-court players, but Swiatek’s easy power and deep precision was too much for even them to handle.
In her semi-final, she hit 23 winners to only six for Podoroska. Against Halep she had 30, same number as against Eugenie Bouchard, and has crossed a minimum of 20 winners in all her singles matches.
Interestingly, the teen reached the women’s doubles semi-final as well, which meant she was playing matches daily. But the way she has blitzed her way in the draw indicates a freshness, vitality, control and potential of a real champion.
The last woman to capture the French Open title without losing a set was Justine Henin in 2007. The last Polish woman to reach a Grand Slam final was Agnieszka Radwanska at Wimbledon in 2012. If Swiatek plays as she has, she has a good chance of breaking one record and matching the other.
Kenin solves her way through
On the other side is another youngster, but one who has already had a breakthrough season.
Kenin, the reigning Australian Open champion, is not a player with the biggest game but is among the cleverest when it comes to shot selection. She called herself a “problem solver” while describing her semi-final win where she faced several nervy moments and was broken while serving for the match.
Also read: Sofia Kenin’s no-look serve is here to stay
Tactically solving problems on court is how she has a 16-1 winning record in Majors in the interrupted 2020 season. She has frenetic energy when she is playing, and coupled with a strange no-look serve and a scramble to get the shot just right, it often feels like she is trying to do too much on court. Instead, she is actually trying to do just enough to win, the next point, the next game... and build on that.
Against Kvitova, she did an excellent job of redirecting shots all over the court. She absorbed the pace and power and mixed up her responses to cramp her opponent, a quality that will serve her well against the big-hitting Swiatek.
While clay is the Pole’s forte, before this season Kenin had never gone as far as the quarter-finals on this surface. She had a third-round win over Serena Williams last year but lost to eventual champion Ashleigh Barty next.
The American has been honest that clay is not her preferred surface and the Rome result would have normally reinforced that. But incredibly, that double-bagel humiliation turned out to be foundation for her best run at French Open yet.
And as it almost always is, a women’s singles Grand Slam final of much intrigue is on the cards.