French Open: Iga Swiatek, the math-head who can write history

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Shared News: October 10, 2020 7:47:32 am
Using geometry of the court and her measured tennis, 19-year-old aims to solve the Kenin problem to become the first Polish woman to win Grand Slam.

Iga Swiatek with coach Nick Brown

During last year’s French Open, Iga Swiatek explained how she applies her favourite subject to tennis: “I see the geometry of the court and use the angles.” And when not solving on-court problems with her measured tennis, the 19-year-old can be found solving math problems with AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses blasting in the background.

“She’s got an old head on young shoulders,” coach Nick Brown sums it up. “You don’t even have to see it in her tennis, just speak to her. She reminds me of somebody like Martina Hingis when she was younger. Her decision making is really good. She processes things, instructions, tactical information. She’s quiet and level headed.”

Swiatek also doesn’t like history because she isn’t “good at remembering dates”. That might just change on Saturday when she squares up with Sofia Kenin in the French Open women’s singles final. It’s been a historic run already for Swiatek — the first Polish woman to reach the French Open singles final in the Open era and the youngest player since Kim Clijsters in 2001.

She began the campaign with a 6-1, 6-2 win over 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, and then defeated the top seed Simona Halep by the same score in the fourth round, exacting revenge over the Romanian for a 6-1, 6-0 defeat last year.

“She was a bit distraught when she came off that match. I told her you will use this experience in the future to be able to come back and achieve great things,” Brown tells The Indian Express from Cambridge, UK. “She came to train here before Christmas with her coach (Piotr Sierzputowski), and she’s coming back here in November. And you can’t get her off the court. She wants to stay on till she gets it, and as a coach you want this kind of drive and work ethic.”

The former British No. 2 has been working closely with Polish tennis since 2005, and was called upon in 2018 to take stock of the prospects. He struck a rapport with Swiatek and her coach during the junior French Open championships that year, where she reached the singles semis and won the doubles title. A month later, they were working together at the Wimbledon juniors.

“Iga had never played on grass before. She drew the top-seed in the first round, and lost the first set. And that was the only set the lost the whole tournament.”

Every time Swiatek stepped off the lawns, she told Brown: “I hate grass, I don’t like playing on it.” “‘How do you like grass now?’ I asked her after she won the final. ‘Oh, I love it’,” laughs Brown. “I think she has the game to win Wimbledon. She doesn’t think so at the moment because she was brought up on clay.”

Breakout on clay

It was on the brick dust at Roland Garros that Swaitek broke through last year, reaching the fourth round before she received what Brown calls “an absolute hiding” at the hands of Halep. Same round, same opponent, Swiatek commanded the court this year and after the win said: “I am, I think stunned.”

Brown wasn’t. The 59-year-old knows a thing or two about upsetting favourites. At 1991 Wimbledon, Brown, ranked 591, sent the All England home crowd into delirium with a win over 10th seed and previous year’s semifinalist Goran Ivanisevic.

“When you walk on the court you’ve got to completely ignore who you’re playing. It’s all about imposing your game on your opponent, irrespective of who it is. A lot of people can’t do that and get intimidated by the person on the other end. That’s not the case with Iga.”

Swiatek outplayed Halep, smashing 30 winners to the latter’s 12. Among her growing legion of fans are opponents and commentators. Pam Shriver has been singing praises of the lethal forehand while Mats Wilander is reminded of Novak Djokovic by her complete game.

Call it Swiateknical tennis, if you will. The first serve is fast and accurate. She is dominant from the baseline, picks the balls early and smacks them with heavy spin. In the six matches, she has racked up 130 winners.

She is not afraid to come forward either. In a tournament dominated by drop shots as players have been troubled moving up on the damp clay, Swiatek has won 51 of 66 net points, a success rate of 77!

Also aiding her volley-game has been the impressive doubles campaign, which ended in a 7-6 (5), 1-6, 6-4 loss in Friday’s semifinals to Alexa Guarachi and Desirae Krawczyk.

“Last year, she didn’t play doubles. I spoke to the coach and said she needs to do that,” says Brown. “Being on the court with some of the best players is good for the game. It gives you more court-time during a tournament and during a Grand Slam when you’re not playing every day, it gives you something to focus on during the singles matches.”

On Friday, however, Swiatek’s focus wavered. She has conceded only 23 games during her march to the singles final. In the doubles semifinal, she conceded 14. Swiatek and partner Nicole Melichar lost the first set after being two breaks up, and failed to consolidate the break in the decider three times. Swiatek looked flappable, taking breaks, flinging racquet and arguing with the umpire.

Such moments of vulnerability could be deadly against her former junior rival on Saturday. In January, Kenin was the surprise package when she lifted the Australian Open after wins over world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty and two-time Major winner Garbine Muguruza. And unlike Swiatek, Kenin has been battle-tested in Paris with four three-setters. Saturday is the American’s chance to win the second Major of the year and distance herself from the one-hit wonders like Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Jelena Ostapenko and Sloane Stephens.

“Iga beat her the last time they met as juniors, which was actually at the French Open. She’s not going to be intimidated by Sophie, I can tell you that now. Tomorrow, it’s up for grabs. It’s a shootout. It’s Iga’s chance to embrace the moment and make history.”

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