Breakout French Open 2020 winner Iga Swiatek may be an unexpected Grand Slam champion, even an underdog given she was up against reigning Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin in the final.
But in her own unique way, the unseeded teenager is not an unlikely champion.
One could be forgiven if they hadn’t heard of her before the fortnight in Paris, where she won the title with a 6-4, 6-1 win. But the 19-year-old from Poland has been one of the young rising stars to watch out for, with support and praise from players such as Naomi Osaka and Victoria Azarenka.
She had never won a WTA singles title before and her only Tour-level final was in Lugano last year where she lost to 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to Polona Hercog. It was only two years back that she won the 2018 French Open doubles and Wimbledon titles on the junior tour.
Very few juniors are able to translate their success at the senior level so quickly, even fewer players can reach and play their first Major final with such ease.
But that’s where Swiatek stands apart. Not only did the teen lift her first Grand Slam – but also her first career title as a senior – with a dominant performance without dropping a set in seven matches, she did it with the command, control and confidence of a veteran top seed.
There are several key numbers, a series of firsts and youngest records, Swiatek achieved and each is a reflection of the sheer magnitude of her achievement. Given the unpredictability of the women’s tour, it’s easy to second guess a new winner till she has proved her consistency. But Swiatek’s numbers reveal a certain edge indicative of a champion for the long haul.
- She is the first singles Grand Slam champion from Poland. Yet, she was quick to dismiss Radwanksa comparisons and said should be considered the best player from the country because of her consistency.
- She is the youngest Roland Garros winner since a certain Rafael Nadal in 2005, who was also 19, and the youngest women’s champion since 1992. The Spaniard happens to be her favourite player.
- She is first woman since Justine Henin in 2007 to win French Open without dropping a set. Henin is a modern French Open great with three consecutive titles and no one has come close to her record in Paris.
- She dropped just 28 games, tying Chris Evert’s run in 1979 for second-fewest games lost in an Open era Major win and second only to Steffi Graf, who lost just 20 in 1988.
- At world No 54, she is the lowest ranked French Open winner since rankings were introduced, breaking the record of 2017 winner Jelena Ostapenko.
Beyond the statistics, were her dynamics on the red clay in a fortnight she seemed untouchable, not just because of how well she was playing but also because of how she was responding to situations.
Her previous best Major run came at the 2019 French Open where she reached the fourth round and was crushed 6-1, 6-0 by Simona Halep. In 2020, she played the top seed and 2018 champion in the fourth round and returned the favour with a 6-2, 6-1 win. Her first match in Paris was against the teenaged 2019 finalist Marketa Voundrousova, who, like Halep, managed to win just three games against her.
In the final against Kenin, she won 12 of the first 15 points to surge 3-0 ahead and then was broken back after an untimely double fault allowing the American to level at 3-all. The end of the first and start of the second set saw five straight breaks of serve and the rollercoaster first set had enough momentum shifts to derail the best of players.
But when it seemed like her error count was racking up, she chose to back her strengths and her ability to effectively deploy pace and power in the slower conditions paid off. Admittedly, Kenin was injured for the second half of the second set but that should not take away much from Swiatek’s game: the cracking winners and clever touches.
The only time she has seemingly struggled at Roland Garros is when she had to give a speech as the champion… and a perhaps a little earlier when she had to climb the stands to reach her team.
But there were a couple of moments in Saturday’s final that showed that Swiatek is a different player even in non-tennis aspects.
When Kenin took an off-court medical timeout in the second set, instead of sitting down, the teen chose to practice her serves. Maybe it was just to stay warm or a way to expend the unavoidable restless energy. But it was a telling trait of a player with razor-sharp focus.
After her win, after an all but one-sided traffic due to Kenin’s fitness, she celebrated and then asked the officials if she can go meet her team in the stands. It was a reminder of what a different year we live in but also of just how young and inexperienced she is. An aspect not seen in her game at all across seven matches against the best.
But while she may have been a bit lost for words after the final on the court, her insightful responses in the press conference later belied her age: answering a question that so, so many would think after seeing a ninth first-time champion in 14 Grand Slams.
“Really I feel like I can progress in most of the things because I’m only 19. I know my game isn’t developed perfectly.
“Also I think the biggest change for me is going 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 as consistent as Rafa, Roger, and Novak. That’s why my goal is going to be consistent. It’s going to be really hard to achieve that.”
If Swiatek can achieve a fraction of that consistency, this unexpected triumph will be just the first of many titles.