Iga Downs Naomi in Epic Battle

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Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Paris

A TALE OF TWO CHAMPIONS: Poland’s Iga Swiatek and the Japanese-Haitian Naomi Osaka were born 5,252 miles from each other. Both started young, had brilliant early careers and emerged to become No. 1 under unusual circumstances. Osaka reached the very top after prevailing in the most controversial WTA match in history, her 2018 US Open final, where Serena imploded. The still very young Swiatek emerged as No. 1 when Ash Barty suddenly retired. 

Although neither player has won Wimbledon, they each have four Slams. And they are two of the most political figures in tennis. Osaka has campaigned for social justice and for awareness of mental health issues. Swiatek is a high-profile opponent of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Both have used their on-court success to build impressive business empires. From 2018 to 2021 Osaka was the dominant player in women’s tennis. But then Barty emerged and Osaka took a 15-month maternity break. In contrast, Swiatek has been No. 1 for 100 weeks.

A few days ago we said the Rafa Nadal-Alexander Zverev match was the most anticipated first-round match we can recall. Then again, today’s epic battle between Swiatek and Osaka was a second-round match like few others. Rarely has there been such a steely display by both warriors – of grit, inspired shotmaking, will and astounding (“Boy, did I screw up, but oh, well”) resilience. 

Going into the match, the conventional wisdom was clear. Osaka was a great champion. But she’s still not back in full form. Yes, she’s a breathtaking powerhouse who’s won four Slams – but they’ve all been on hard courts. Could she muster the slide and blast subtleties that clay court tennis demands? Probably not.

But, not so fast. Osaka came back from a 4-2 first-set deficit and gained a set point before the Pole battled back to win the opening set tiebreak 7-1.

Then Naomi caught fire, blasting deep groundies and well-angled winners. She showed surprisingly great clay-friendly movement. As the rains pounded the Chatrier stadium roof, Osaka pounded Iga, winning an astounding nine of ten games on the trot. Osaka captured the second set 6-1 as Iga looked rushed and shaken. Her courtside psychologist muttered. 

In the third set, Osaka couldn’t close Iga out, after holding a 5-2 lead. She served for the match at 5-3 and on a match point hit an eminently makable backhand into the net. 

But there’s a reason Iga has won the past two French Opens, is 31-2 at Roland Garros, and is considered the best problem-solver in tennis. And Osaka seemed to be succumbing to nerves, botching one opportunity after another.

Still, she managed to make her way to a match point. But you can’t run out the clock in tennis. And Iga, as she did in Madrid against Aryna Sabalenka, simply refused to lose. “If anyone can come back,” observed one traveler from Brooklyn,” “it’s Iga.”

Swiatek held her nerve and boldly called on her movement, anticipation, wicked backhand and clay court cred to stage a jaw-dropping comeback as she prevailed over the No. 134 Osaka 7-6(1), 1-6, 7-5.

Afterward, Osaka confided that she had cried. To her the match was truly memorable. “It was probably the most fun match I’ve played.” Then, with a smile on her face, she put things in perspective, saying, “I was watching Iga win this tournament last year and I was pregnant. It was just my dream to be able to play her…When I kind of think of it like that, I think I’m doing pretty well. I’m also just trying not to be too hard on myself…I feel like I played her on her better surface. I’m a hard-court kid, so I would love to play her on my surface and see what happens.”

Exactly. Then again, it would have been interesting to see what would have happened at this tournament if Naomi had converted her match point. Somehow the phrase coulda, shoulda, woulda comes to mind.

PAINFUL COLLISIONS: While intensely checking out a ball mark during the Aryna Sabalenka vs. Erika Andreeva match, the chair umpire quickly rose up and bumped Andreeva in the head. We thought the 19-year-old might have suffered a concussion. Worse yet, when 6′ 7″ Nicholas Jarry was innocently walking around the sideline during his first-round match, he was suddenly bowled over by a sprinting ballboy and was left to dust himself off. Attention ATP and WTA players: keep your heads up. Tennis can be dangerous to your health.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE: We may never hear again the full-of-bravado introduction of Rafa Nadal from Roland Garros’ operatic announcer – the seemingly unending introduction, with an impressive crescendo, that features the fourteen different years that Rafa has won the French, as the crowd goes crazy. Nadal’s opponents had to be a bit intimidated. 

NEWS FROM THE CITY OF LOVE: Just as tennis fans internationally were wrapping up their morning period, following the breakup of Tsitsidosa (that would be Stefanos Tsitsipas and Paula Badosa), they learned that the Greek-Spanish duo have gotten back together after a month-long separation. Plus, a new appealing power couple has emerged. Italian Jannik Sinner confirmed he’s dating the Russian Anna Kalinskaya.

A NEW STAT AND A NEW LOOK FOR NOVAK: When we check the 2024 record book, we see that Novak has a 15-6 win-loss record. The phrase “How can this be?” comes to mind. Plus, the GOAT’s support box has a whole new look. Gone is his longtime agent, his manager, his coach and fitness trainer. The only familiar face we see is his wife, Jelena. And now that the Serb confided that he’s dealing with a Pandora’s box of problems, the “What’s wrong with Novak?” sweepstakes has begun. During his first match, Gigi Salmon simply said, “He’s confused.” Others contended that he has health issues or that he just doesn’t have the intensity of the past. “There’s something in the air that’s bothering him,” said one French commentator.

Meanwhile, Novak dismissed his first-round foe, Frenchman Pierre-Hugues Herbert, with some ease, and the defending champion remains, after Carlos Alcaraz, as the second favorite to win in Paris. 

BRITISH BLUES: While America’s battling contingent in Paris has gotten off to a fine start, Britain has been facing the blues. Their most glamorous star, Emma Raducanu, didn’t get a wildcard, as she so often does. Andy Murray, Cam Norrie, Jack Draper, Daniel Evans and Harriet Dart have all lost.

GOOD AND NOT SO GOOD AMERICAN NEWS: While Sofia Kenin, with all her spunk, downed France’s Caroline Garcia, Russian Yulia Putintseva beat Sloane Stephens, 6-1, 6-2. 

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