Iga Swiatek enters league of clay-court greats with fourth French Open title


Clay can be the most fickle surface in tennis, especially the kind at the French Open in Paris. The mix of crushed stone and red brick must be kept smooth and dry but also watered and moistened. Conditions, constantly changing due to the unpredictable weather, drastically alter outcomes. Its impracticality feels obvious when a classic slow-burning baseline contest becomes a heavy-hitting power duel when the roof closes due to intermittent rain. The ball can come slow and high under the dry heat, and heavy as the wind rolls in.

Mastery of clay-court tennis, rare as it may be due to its many peculiarities, has always prompted fascination. Rafael Nadal’s run of sustained success may have permanently changed perceptions regarding this surface, but on the women’s tour, Chris Evert remains above all. Her run of 7 French Open titles – which began half a century ago – is unmatched (she also only lost once before the semifinal in her entire career in Paris).

Steffi Graf came close during her run of dominance, Monica Seles showed bursts of it before tragedy struck, and Justine Henin went on a run at the start of this century.

On Saturday, at the intimately small Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, Evert handed the trophy to anoint a new great into their league.

Iga Swiatek, the 23-year-old World No. 1 from Poland, defeated Italian 12th seed Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 6-1 to lift a third consecutive French Open title – her fourth in five years. It was her fifth Grand Slam singles title. In open era women’s tennis, only Evert and Graf (6) have won more Roland Garros titles than her, and she becomes the first woman since Henin in 2007 to triumph thrice in a row in Paris. She also became the only woman apart from Serena Williams to do the Madrid-Rome-Paris triple – winning all three of the most important clay court events on the calendar in the same year.

Swiatek has earned her place in the esteemed company. Monday kicks off her 107th week as the top-ranked women’s player, putting her ninth on the all-time list. While there is room for improvement in some facets of her game, and she may need to prove herself at Majors on all surfaces, little doubt remains that she has set the modern-day standard for excelling on the red dirt.

Festive offer

Sunday’s straight-sets scoreline may be harsh on Paolini, a late bloomer making her breakthrough at 28. The Italian has been surging in the rankings this year after winning a first Masters 1000 title in Doha and even causing a major upset by downing World No. 3 Elena Rybakina in the quarterfinal in Paris.

She came out bravely and fashioned an early lead with a break of serve, but after Swiatek shed some early nerves, it was one way traffic. The Pole won 11 of the final 12 games, bringing her big return and forehand to the fore and dominating. Paolini was an equal participant in some exchanges, but Swiatek did what she has done to many others, using her brutal shotmaking to not only take control of the rallies but also take out her opponent’s legs. The long exchanges were often followed by easy points won by Swiatek’s 1-2 shot crunches.

Even as the crowd willed Paolini on in search of a more even contest, and as she pushed herself to enjoy the occasion, the gulf in class was apparent as Swiatek stepped up in the second set to take total control and come away with the win.

“I love this place, I wait every year to come back,” she said on court after her near-flawless performance, without a trace of cliché.

All weapons on clay

Daughter of an Olympic rower, the 22-year-old enjoys a natural athleticism that makes her a threat on clay. She has sharp, angled, at times devastating returns on a surface that reduces the zip on serves. Her spin-laden forehand, inspired by her idol Nadal, does plenty of damage. Her side-to-side lunges allow her to turn defence into attack. But despite the technique and physicality, it’s her appetite to fight, an attribute that is rewarded more on this surface than any other, that she can so readily rely on.

Sunday’s steamroller was not where Swiatek won this title. Go back a week to her peculiar second round tie against four-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka.

Osaka, plotting a post-pregnancy comeback, outhit and outplayed Swiatek for the entirety of that contest but Swiatek did not lose focus, raising her game at the right moments and escaping with a win after saving match point. She did not lose a single set on her march to the trophy from there.

“I was almost out of this tournament in the second round. I needed to believe this is going to be possible, so it has been a really emotional tournament for sure,” she would say after the final.

Perhaps Paolini will take solace in the fact that so many players have been well beaten in this situation. Perhaps if she returns to this stage, she will come with clever tactics and more brave hitting. Perhaps she may even down this champion from her perch. But at present, in Swiatek’s dominion of clay, it seems like nobody can.

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