The WTA is a star machine. It’s the big league of all of women’s sports. It’s produced a pipeline of wonder women who disrupt, transform and inspire. Over-the-top stars are its thing – just ask Serena.
Long ago, Althea Gibson strode into a very white country club world. Billie Jean King called the troops to storm one barricade after another. Martina Navratilova defected and came out, and Chris Evert inspired. Steffi, Monica and the eminently likable mother Kim Clijsters did their thing. Ms. Sharapova blurred the lines between Russia and the USA. Li Na turned China into a WTA marketing bonanza, and the enigmatic, transparent, brave Naomi Osaka broke barriers. And, yes, they made a movie about the Williamses.
As Serena was falling short of equaling Margaret Court’s singles Slam record, Ash Barty became an Aussie hero and a beacon for her aboriginal people. She quickly rose to No. 1. Then in a flash she vanished, leaving a vast void.
But nature and the WTA abhor a vacuum. Enter a slim, eager 21-year-old from a village south of Warsaw. Iga Swiatek stepped up, won a record 37 matches in a row and claimed six tourneys, including her second French Open title.
After her Paris win we thought it might be the dawning of the Age of Iga. Well, think no more. This is the age of Iga.
As an avid reader, she told us, appropriately enough, that she was now reading “Atonement.” In the Big Apple the Pole was hoping to atone for a big summer slump, in which she faltered at Wimbledon, in Warsaw and on the North American circuit. Never mind that in New York, the world No. 1 played in the shadow of Serena. More to the point, Iga said she just wasn’t confident on hard courts. She complained about the balls and had to rally in the semis when she was down a set and a break to Aryna Sabalenka.
But the challenge seemed to give her belief.
In today’s final, Iga came out on fire. Flying to every corner, she bent low, hit the ball on the rise and took the initiative from the outset. Her foe, Wimbledon finalist Ons Jabeur, the first African/Arab woman to reach the US Open finals, was on her heels. Iga left her hard court doubts in the locker room as she took the match by its throat.
Fans were still coming in with their $22-a-cup, Grey Goose Honey Deuce drinks. Already many feared that the Tunisian’s goose was cooked.
Tentative and nervous, Jabeur seemed flat. Her energy was low. She lost eight of the nine first points and fell behind 3-0. But, to the delight of the crowd, Ons did hold and then unleashed her power with a torrent of groundie winners to break back on serve 3-2.
Swiatek had seen enough. The mentally toughest player on the tour, who shows us hints of Martina Hingis and Justine Henin, is an absolute demon in finals. She had won all 9 she’d played. She promptly got back into the zone and won six games in a row to go up 6-2, 3-0 in the second set.
“Usually Ons is the one who is disrupting and here she’s the one being disrupted,” noted Mary Joe Fernandez. Swiatek is like a cobra. She squeezes the life out of her foes and runs them to the corners. There’s no room to breathe. While Ons’s serve was wretched in the first set, Iga was serving lights out – 90% on first serves and she got all of her returns back in play..
Polish zealots in Section 51 with their red scarfs, Polska hats and red and white wigs were beside themselves. This would be a cakewalk. Jabeur seemed discombobulated.
But then the Tunisian, who will be No. 2 in the world on Monday, at last displayed a bit of her magic. On her third breakpoint she broke to get the second set back on serve and then held to at last even the set 3-3.
But as rowdy fans called out, Jabeur couldn’t convert three key break points to gain the second-set lead. Swiatek’s rapid fire defense was just too seamless. She bends low and explodes into her shots on both wings. It’s a barrage. Jabeur was far too erratic. She failed to finish off key points and faltered in the critical second-set tiebreak.
There the two traded mini breaks, but then Jabeur netted a routine forehand and, on her second championship point, Swiatek watched as a Jabeur forehand flew long.
The 21-year-old fell to her back in disbelief. She was relieved the match would not go to a third set. She became the first Pole to ever win the Open and the first WTA player since Serena in 2004 to win eight titles in a season. The Open was her first Grand Slam not on clay. She prevailed 6-2, 7-6(5).
Swiatek still seems young. There are hints of innocence. But there’s fire in her eyes. She’s methodical and unblinking. Her mind is a weapon. She takes no prisoners and steps up at crunch time. Yes, pressure is a privilege, but for Iga it’s dessert.
Today the Open was true to its loud self. Sirens, whistles, random cries and loud motorcycles imposed. “It’s New York,” the triumphant Iga told the crowd, “It’s so crazy. There are so many temptations in the city and there are so many people I’ve met who are so inspiring. It’s really mind-blowing.” After she met Seal early in the tourney, she felt she had won the US Open.
For her part, Ons joked, “I don’t like Iga very much right now, but it’s okay.” Jabeur was soon underneath the stadium crying and letting it all hang out. Another dream had eluded her. She told the press she had nothing to regret. She said she wants to win a Slam “just to show that it’s not impossible for someone coming from my country, coming from my continent, to win.” She told Inside Tennis that her message to African girls would be, “Always believing in themselves, never give up. That’s what I was trying to do all my career. I played a lot of African tournaments…The way they fight there, it’s just amazing. Hopefully just one day they can find the right person to guide them and be here.”
Ons noted how much Iga has improved her serve and her forehand, and how high she’s set the bar.
Swiatek may not yet be a superstar. She’s 20 Slams behind Serena. But let’s be clear. We’re now in the Age of Iga – and it could go on for decades.