Saturday, October 10, 2020

Sensational Swiatek, 19, drubs ailing Kenin to win crown

American Sofia Kenin confers with her Russian father and coach, Alex,
during the 2018 Berkeley (Calif.) Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman 
   Iga Swiatek has a long way to go to match her idol Rafael Nadal's dominance in the French Open.
   That's probably impossible, but she's off to an impressive start.
   Not only did the unseeded Swiatek (pronounced Shvee-ON-tek) win the title at 19, she did so in the most convincing fashion in memory in women's Grand Slams, capping her stunning march with a 6-4, 6-1 victory over ailing Sofia Kenin today in Paris.
   Swiatek did not lose a set in seven matches, surrendering only 28 games (2.0 per set) and never more than five in a set. She dismissed 15th-seeded Marketa Vondrousova, a Czech left-hander who reached last year's final at Roland Garros before undergoing left-wrist surgery, 6-1, 6-2 in 63 minutes in the opening round and thrashed top-seeded Simona Halep, the 2018 champion, by the same score in 68 minutes in the fourth round.  
   Swiatek became the first Polish player, male or female, to capture a major title, the youngest woman to win the French Open since Croatia's Iva Majoli at 19 in 1997 and the first woman to take the crown without losing a set since Justine Henin earned the last of her four Roland Garros titles in 2007.
   Henin twice won the French Open without dropping a set, losing 38 games in 2007 and 39 games in 2006. 
   Nadal, a 12-time French Open champion playing best-of-five-set matches, will try to win the title without losing a set for the fourth time when he faces top-ranked Novak Djokovic, the 2016 champion, on Sunday.
   Nadal has dropped an average of 2.6 games per set, winning two tiebreakers. Twice, he has lost fewer than 2.0 games per set en route to the title, 1.84 games (also never more than four) in 2017 and 1.95 in 2008.
   Both Nadal and Swiatek won their first Roland Garros crown shortly after turning 19, Nadal in his first appearance in 2005 and Swiatek in her second.
   Swiatek had struggled since the pro tours resumed in August after a five-month, pandemic-induced hiatus. In her three tournaments before the French Open, she lost in the first round of the Western & Southern Open on hardcourts in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., to qualifier Christina McHale, the third round of the U.S. Open to eventual runner-up Victoria Azarenka, and the first round of the Italian Open on clay to qualifier Arantxa Rus. 
   In the French Open, though, Swiatek took advantage of the absences of world No. 1 and defending champion Ashleigh Barty (coronavirus concerns) and three-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka (hamstring injury). Also, three-time Roland Garros winner Serena Williams, 39, withdrew before her second-round match because of an Achilles tendon injury suffered in her semifinal loss to Azarenka in the U.S. Open.
   Because of the pandemic, the French Open was postponed from late May and early June, and only 1,000 fans were allowed daily. That's 1,000 more than were admitted each day at the U.S. Open. Spectators bundled up in parkas, and many players wore long sleeves and tights. 
   Swiatek, who will soar 37 places to a career-high No. 17 on Monday, conceded in an NBC interview that winning the French Open "was a surprise. It's really funny because after preseason and during the COVID break, I was playing so well that I thought I may actually win a Grand Slam right now because the top players aren't here and it's a big opportunity for underdogs. But when I started the U.S. swing, I realized that maybe this is not the best way to approach tournaments and my expectations were too high. So right now I just focused on playing tennis, and actually I made it. It's amazing what a proper mindset can do."
   Sports psychologist Daria Abramowicz, who celebrated her birthday today, has helped Swiatek with that. 
   "I always wanted to work with a psychologist because I had this belief that it's like a big part of the game," Swiatek said this week. "But my parents weren't as open to that as I was."
   Swiatek, whose father was an Olympic rower, graduated from high school in the spring and gave herself a "gap year" to play professional tennis. If she didn't succeed, she would go to college. Swiatek will probably stick with tennis for a while. By winning the French Open, she added $1.88 million to her career prize money of $1.1 million. It beats working at McDonald's. 
   Kenin, a 21-year-old American born in Moscow, seemed to lack her trademark competitiveness from the outset of the final, possibly because of a left-thigh problem. She failed to chase a cross-court backhand and weak drop shot early in the match and rarely used her own sensational drop shot. In the second set, Kenin had her left thigh retaped twice.
   The fourth-seeded Kenin, who will rise two spots to equal her career high of No. 4, said Swiatek "obviously played a really good match. She's really hot right now, playing some really great tennis. I'm not going to use this as an excuse, but my leg obviously was not the best. It's obviously disappointing."
   Swiatek's title was no fluke, according to NBC commentators John McEnroe and Mary Carillo.
   "I'll be amazed if she doesn't win a lot more majors," said McEnroe, an International Tennis Hall of Famer who lost the 1984 French Open final to Ivan Lendl after leading two sets to none. "I'd like to see her play on hardcourts and see what adjustments she makes on grass — unfortunately Wimbledon wasn't played this year — but she's got all the goods."
   Added Carillo, who won the French Open mixed doubles title with McEnroe in 1977: "She's going to be hosting trophies for a while now." 
   Swiatek, who also reached the doubles semifinals with Czech-born American Nicole Melichar, became the third surprising women's champion in the last four Grand Slam tournaments. Bianca Andreescu of Canada won last year's U.S. Open at 19, and Kenin captured the Australian Open early this year at 20. But at least they were seeded — Andreescu 15th and Kenin 14th.
   Swiatek's title was reminiscent of unseeded Jelena Ostapenko's in the 2017 French Open two days after the Latvian turned 20. Ostapenko, however, survived five three-set matches, including in the last four rounds.
   Swiatek wore all white during the French Open as if playing at Wimbledon, where she won the girls singles title 2018. Swiatek met Kenin for the first time professionally but defeated her 6-4, 7-5 in the third round of the French Open girls event in 2016. Kenin then won Northern California Challengers in Sacramento that year at 17, Stockton in 2017 and Berkeley in 2018.
   Swiatek reached the final in Lugano, Switzerland, on clay on the WTA Tour and the round of 16 of the French Open last year and the fourth round of the Australian Open this year.
   Kenin, meanwhile, had never advanced to the quarterfinals of a tour-level clay-court tournament before this year's French Open, although she did stun Williams in the third round at Roland Garros last year
   Like Swiatek, Kenin lost her first match in her only French Open tuneup. Kenin, however, fell 6-0, 6-0 to Azarenka in the Italian Open. In a tribute to Kenin's mental toughness, she rebounded in Paris, surviving four three-set matches and eliminating seventh-seeded Petra Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, 6-4, 7-5 in the semifinals.
   The 5-foot-9 (1.76-meter) Swiatek showed no sign of nerves in her first Grand Slam final, bolting to a 3-0 lead with her powerful, compact groundstrokes. Kenin rallied for 3-3, but Swiatek won nine of the last 11 games. 
   Swiatek had 25 winners and 17 unforced errors overall versus 10 and 23, respectively, for Kenin.
   Nadal would be proud.
   Men's singles final — Nadal will try to tie Roger Federer's men's record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles on Sunday at 6 a.m. PDT (NBC). Djokovic, meanwhile, can pull within one Slam of Nadal. 
   Djokovic, 33, is 29-26 against Nadal, 34, but the Spaniard owns advantages of 17-7 on clay (8-7 in the last 15 encounters), 6-1 in the French Open and 2-0 in Roland Garros finals (both in four sets).
   Nadal is 99-2 (not counting a walkover loss) in the French Open, falling to Djokovic in the 2015 quarterfinals and Robin Soderling in the fourth round in 2009.
   Nadal seeks his fourth consecutive French Open title. Djokovic has won Roland Garros once in four finals, completing a career Grand Slam there in 2016
   Men's doubles final — Eighth-seeded Kevin Krawietz and Andreas Mies of Germany won their second consecutive French Open title, beating seventh-seeded Mate Pavic of Croatia and Bruno Soares of Brazil 6-3, 7-5. Pavic and Soares won the U.S. Open last month.

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