The sun is high in a clear sky. French jazz lingers in the air. It’s finals day in Paris. Polish men with bright red scarves and Parisian ladies in pink bonnets stroll Roland Garros’ wide promenade. Lunch was grand, the champagne was cool, and backers of American Coco Gauff were hopeful.
Gauff is a battler, and wise beyond her years. She has a thing for France. Here, as a 10-year-old, she had a brilliant tryout at the Mouratoglou Academy. At 14, she won the French Open juniors. And at Roland Garros this year she was on a roll in singles, where she hadn’t lost a set, and in doubles, with Jessica Pegula, she reached the finals that will be played Sunday.
Plus, Swiatek had wobbled just a bit against Danka Kovinic in the third round, and was briefly rattled when Qinwen Zheng downed her in the first set of their fourth-round match. Iga had won five tourneys this season, but none of them had been majors – yippee. In other words, there were glimmers of hope.
But a first-time appearance in a major can be daunting. The moment can overwhelm. A question always lurks: how will a player react when they’re on the biggest stage for the first time? Americans hoped that Coco would call on her sublime athleticism, her superb movement and her money backhand to make a statement.
She didn’t. From the outset, the moment was too big for the 18-year-old. Her face was tight, her body language didn’t inspire, her footwork didn’t flow, she couldn’t hit freely.
She’d tried to minimize the moment, telling herself it was just a tennis match. But sadly, Coco netted forehands to the bottom of the net or blasted them long. Swiatek broke to gain an early lead. Coco did save four break points in the fourth game, but then was broken again, as Iga raced to a 4-0 lead.
Her dad was glum. The crowd murmured, “Get going, Coco!” We thought of Steffi Graf’s 6-0, 6-0 French Open demolition of Natasha Zvereva in 1988. Sixteen times this year, the relentless Pole had won 6-0 sets. In the front row of the VIP section, Billie Jean King was also grim. Her most famous saying, “Pressure is a privilege” came to mind. But pressure can also be an uncaring sledgehammer.
After 23 minutes of Swiatekian dominance, an Iga backhand went long, and, at last, Coco won a game. Would she now settle in?
Nope. Swiatek is like a cobra. She squeezes the life out of her foes. Her forehand is one of the best weapons in the game. Her movement is fleet. Her anticipation is uncanny. She absorbs her opponent’s power. These days her mental toughness is unrivaled. She just refuses to lose. She works hard.
Gauff said Iga takes the ball early and her greatest strength is that she can change the direction of the ball and surprise you with outright winners.
Swiatek hit a brilliant forehand on the line and collected the first set in 32 minutes (then again, she won the Italian Open over Karolina Pliskova in just 43 minutes).
But Coco is a fighter. Draymond Green is her favorite NBA player – and she knows about resets. Every morning she takes a walk to clear her mind.
Today she took a break off court and then returned to take advantage of some surprisingly errant Swiatek backhands to at last break serve. She went up 2-0 in the second set. Iga raised her hands in a rare moment of frustration. “Ladies and gentleman,” Radio Roland Garros announced, “we have a match on our hands.”
But it was not to be. The woman who has a hard name to pronounce has a tough inner core, just like her idol, Rafa Nadal. There’s a reason they call her the Pole-verizer. She blasted a sensational backhand, and again Gauff’s level dropped terribly. Swiatek broke, the beatdown was again in gear. Gauff’s errors piled up and her spirit withered. Coco grimaced in frustration – we felt her pain.
Swiatek serve dominated. skipped on court. She skipped on court. She won 70% of her second serves and over 56% of her returns of serve, compared to Gauff’s lowly 14%. Iga broke Coco five times and raced to a 5-2 second-set lead.
Gauff managed a rare hold of serve, but when her last return flew long, Iga dropped to the hallowed clay and roared. Victory was hers. At last there was relief from all the pressure that had been on her shoulders. Her second French Open title was her sixth title in a row. No one else had done that since Justine Henin in 2007-08. Iga also became the youngest multi-Slam winner since Serena, and now has a 9-1 record in finals. In all of those wins, not one of her foes has won more than five games.
In combination with the WTA’s previous top player, the retired Ash Barty, the No. 1 woman player hasn’t lost since September. The 21-year-old is not really a teen phenom like Monica Seles, Steffi Graf, Martina Hingis or the Williams sisters were. Even more than winning the French, Iga was pleased with her 35-match win streak. She said, “Doing something more than Serena is pretty special.”
Swiatek has a bounty of gifts: flowing athleticism, vice-grip mentality, power forehands, great returns, and a strong support team. Iga loves the battle. The brighter the lights, the better she plays. For two weeks the French Open has seemed like Poland Garros – and Iga could also win Wimbledon in July.
Swiatek is not only the WTA’s best athlete. She’s a voracious reader and adept thinker, who’s gaining in awareness of her world. While the other day Gauff spoke out against gun violence, today the Pole spoke of her embattled neighbors: “I want at the end to say something to Ukraine: To stay strong, because the war is still there.”
Today’s young champion seems bound to be tomorrow’s icon, who may well battle and inspire for years. After all, we have now entered the Age of Iga.