Learning to Love Iga

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh

Paris

All was lost. The resurgent Naomi Osaka was surging.

The crowd roared. The best player in the world, Iga Swiatek, wobbled. The Pole was shaky and adrift. The dominator was being dominated.

Iga’s vulnerability somehow made her more appealing. All Osaka had to do was hit a short forehand to gain two match points. But she blinked and then muffed a subsequent match point.

And that’s all the wonder of Warsaw needed, as she turned the tide to avert disaster. Yes, after her Houdini escape, she pleaded with the crowd: “Don’t howl at me. This isn’t easy. Let me play.” Then she wept. Even for the best, tennis can be brutal.

Iga’s unkind brush with tennis mortality was a brisk wake-up call. The Pole, who won the considerable warm-ups in Madrid and Rome, warmed up the ovens in her bakery. She dismissed a Czech, destroyed Russian Anastasia Potapova 6-0, 6-0, was rude to Wimbledon’s defending champ Marketa Vondrousova and once again crushed Coco Gauff.

Iga, who’d dropped 17 games to Osaka, lost just 17 games in her next four matches as she blasted her way to the French Open final.

Going into her match with the Italian Cinderella, Jasmine Paolini, optimists were left grasping at straws. Fairy tales happen. Do you believe in miracles? Anything is possible. She’s got nothing to lose. 

Certainly the WTA’s No. 1, who was on a 20-match winning streak at Roland Garros and was seeking her fourth title here in five years, would certainly prevail. Yes, Paolini had touched us with the most inspiring breakout story in years. But pre-match analysts were left to note that Iga had dropped only one set in the tourney and that 40% of her sets ended up with bakery score lines – either 6-0 bagels or 6-1 breadsticks.

The vastly appealing, not that young and not that tall Paolini tried to put up a fight. Certainly the third shortest Grand Slam finalist ever would do better than Russian Natasha Zverev who fell to Steffi Graf 6-0, 6-0 in the 1988 final. Then again, Iga, who’s never lost a Slam final, is a phenom at the end of tourneys. Just ask Indian Wells finalist Maria Sakkari or Jessica Pegula, who fell 6-1, 6-0 in November’s WTA Championships.

To her credit, spunky Paolini showed few signs of nerves. She retrieved beautifully. She opened the court and hit a drop shot winner. And when a Swiatek backhand flew long, the Italian claimed a shock break of serve to go up 2-1. Dressed in red, white and green, Italian fans were thrilled, and dreamed of an upset. 

But so what? In a blink, Iga ran the diminutive 28-year-old from corner to corner with her heavy topspin forehands and vicious flat backhands. The Pole won a grueling 25-stroke rally, pounced on Jasmine’s slow 76 mph serve and called on her big-match experience. Her first step is explosive, her rhythm is smooth and she has the balance of an acrobat. She won five games in a row to collect the first set 6-2.

Swiatek wasn’t yet able to munch on a bagel or a breadstick. But her confidence soared, she knew she was the superior player. She turned the screws and punished the Italian. Pow, bop, boom! Iga pounced and began to punch out Paolini. Who cares that Jasmine’s mother is Polish? The pulveriser did her thing. 

Jasmine, who’d been on court for over 17 hours and was into the doubles final, seemed flat, a half step slow. Time and again she stretched just to get her racket on the ball. She did manage to unload some deep forehands. But the rout was on. There is something anti-climatic and sad about a Grand Slam final blow-out.

And as Swiatek raced to a 5-0 lead in the second set, virtually every non-Polish fan in Paris hoped that the final would be bagel-free. Goodness gracious, Paolini finally held serve. But moments later, Iga hit a 117 mph service winner to gain her fourth French title 6-2, 6-1.

Yet another first time finalist fell. And the sublime champion, who blew away the field, blew kisses to the crowd. She shook the Lenglen trophy in triumph. Zendaya had congratulated her after her Indian Wells win. Now Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova presented her with her the coveted crown. Paolini, joyous as ever, said her days here in Paris were the best days of her life. It’s a happy me. I don’t know where this journey will take me. She told the Queen of Clay, “To play you here is the biggest challenge in the sport.”

Swiatek teared up as the Polish anthem was played and said, “I needed to know if this was possible.”

And we analysts wondered whether we can figure out where Swiatek is in the tennis pantheon.

Iga, who’s been No. 1 for 106 weeks, just crushed the soon-to-be No. 2 Gauff, and has a daunting 11-1 record over the Floridian. No. 3 Aryna Sabalenka has won two Slams, but lost to Iga in Madrid in an epic battle and in Rome.

Iga has a massive points lead in the ranking and many claim she is simply at a level above. Does she have any peers? She now has four French championships and has about 12 years of high performance left. Piolini said, “these numbers are not normal.” Now many suggest that Iga can reach Evert’s record of 7 titles. Goodness, some day could she even get to Nadalian numbers. 

Carlos Alcaraz just said great champions can win on all surfaces. Iga won the 2022 US Open, but has never reached the finals in Australia. Despite winning the Wimbledon juniors, she has never gotten beyond the quarterfinals in London. Is it a mental thing? 

Will she be able to rack up Slam wins on grass and hard courts? She’s already earned more than $30 million on court. But when it comes to career Slams won, can we ask if she might eventually approach Serena’s 23? 

Iga has so many assets. Her stutter steps are quick. Bright and aware, she speaks fast, in a kind of a monotone. Her focus rarely wavers. Her will is a weapon. She raised money big time for Ukrainian kids and often wore the ribbon of that war-torn nation. Plus, she’s savvy. 

Off court, she’s building a business empire. On court, she reaches the heights. She seems to take refuge in her trademark cap that she wears down. We rarely spot her eyes. 

Her expressionless game face is in the somber tradition of Ivan Lendl. Fans hear none of  the ear splitting, “C’mons!” that Serena offered. The oh-so-human collapses that Aryna Sabalenka suffers are absent. Iga beams in triumph – “Just win, baby.” But on court we see few of the wide-ranging, transparent emotions that Coco shows. 

Yes, Swiatek is a brilliant athlete and a leader. With her uncanny anticipation and flash speed, she bounds fleetly to every corner of the court. Her topspin forehand lands deep, her backhand is wicked. She takes time from her foes. She crushes opponents. Cobras might sigh, “Give me a break.” 

Iga manages crises and problem solves like a chessmaster. There’s just one hitch. She’s not that cuddly and not that approachable. She doesn’t exactly invite us in. While others dance and joke and light up the locker room, Iga’s a serious introvert. Forget TikTok tricks. Swiatek has an Instagram book club. Deep-think biographies of Da Vinci, four volume thrillers, Moby Dick and the Great Gatsby are her fare. Plus, on and off court she’s an unrelenting perfectionist. 

The ever-analytical 23-year-old is deeply respected and admired, of course. Just ask Rafa, Andy Murray or skiing champion Mikaela Shiffrin. Her achievements inspire. But her all-business, (would an occasional smile really derail everything?) approach hardly attracts masses of passionate fans.

But hold on. Yes, tennis is an entertainment racket, but first and foremost the game is about winning. And no man or woman these days is better at it than a remarkable fighting champion, the wonder of Warsaw, who once again will leave Paris with a shiny trophy, a $2.59 million paycheck and a modest number of fans.

FUTURE BRUIN WINS JUNIOR TITLE: Incoming UCLA freshman Kaylan Bigun won the French Open junior boys’ singles title, becoming the first American to accomplish the feat since Tommy Paul in 2015 and only the fourth to do it in the Open era. The No. 5 lefty Bigun from West Hollywood beat Tomasz Berkieta of Poland, 4-6, 6-3, 6-3. Peter Smith-coached Iva Jovic, 16, from Torrance, fell in the girls’ doubles final. Jovic trains with Smith at the Kramer Club in Rolling Hills.

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