PARIS — Sofia Kenin entered 2020 with an 11-11 record in Grand Slam action. She never had made the quarterfinals at any clay-court tournament until this trip to Roland Garros — and lost her only tuneup match on the surface 6-0, 6-0 last month.
Iga Swiatek is just 19. She’s ranked 54th. She’s never won a tour-level title of any sort. She’d never before been past the fourth round at a major tournament.
Look at the two of them now — French Open finalists.
Already the owner of a major trophy from this year’s Australian Open, the No. 4-seeded Kenin moved into the title match in Paris by beating No. 7 Petra Kvitova 6-4, 7-5 on Thursday.
“My mentality has obviously changed,” said Kenin, who said she derived a boost of confidence from upsetting Serena Williams at Roland Garros a year ago. “I feel like I should be getting deep in a tournament, but try not to put pressure on myself.”
The 21-year-old American will carry a 16-1 mark in Grand Slam action this season into Saturday’s matchup against Poland’s Swiatek.
“I’m going to be, like, an ‘underdog,’” Swiatek said, using her fingers to make air quotes.
Maybe. On the other hand, consider how dominant she has been along the way to becoming the lowest-ranked women’s finalist at Roland Garros since the WTA computer rankings began in 1975. Her latest lopsided win was via a 6-2, 6-1 score against Argentine qualifier Nadia Podoroska.
“It seems unreal,” Swiatek said. “On one hand, I know that I can play great tennis. On the other hand, it’s kind of surprising for me.”
She has won all 12 sets she’s played in the tournament, dropping merely 23 games.
Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, came in having won every set, too. But as Kenin put it: “I mean, that obviously doesn’t mean anything if I’m playing well.”
The lefty from the Czech Republic had grabbed 77% of her service games in the tournament, before Kenin stole two of the first three. Part of it was strong returning. More of it was the manner in which Kenin was pushing Kvitova around on a breezy late afternoon, pinning her to the baseline.
Also working in Kenin’s favor was an ability to sense where a ball was headed and use her speed to track it down, repeatedly stretching points that seemed lost.
Eventually, that appeared to make Kvitova play as if she felt that she needed to try to do more, maybe do too much, because she would cut off points early by attempting to end them — and, too often, she would miss the mark.
By the end, Kvitova produced 31 unforced errors, to 20 for Kenin, whose shouts of “Come on!” grew louder as the end grew closer. Her intensity also came through when she chucked her red-white-and-blue racket.
“I mean, obviously I felt like I could not overpower her. I knew I just needed to adjust my game,” Kenin said. “I had to control the points, move her, dictate, try not to give her short balls, try to have a good serve.”
When Swiatek’s 70-minute tour de force ended before a crowd in the hundreds at Court Philippe Chatrier — there is a daily limit on spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic — she asked for more noise, waving her arms and cupping a hand to her ear.
Swiatek vs. Podoroska was the first women’s semifinal at Roland Garros between unseeded opponents since 1983 — and only one, Swiatek, truly seemed ready for the stage.
Podoroska is ranked 131st, the first female qualifier in the professional era to get to the final four in Paris.
Just in case someone might get the idea this was a fluke for Swiatek, who listens to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses in her headphones before stepping out on court: She eliminated 2018 champion and No. 1 seed Simona Halep 6-1, 6-2 in the fourth round, after defeating 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova by the same score in the first.
Swiatek (pronounced shvee-ON’-tek) has been on the rise, and the tennis world’s radar, for a couple of years now.
In 2018, she won the Wimbledon junior singles title and the French Open junior doubles title (with Coco Gauff’s current partner, Caty McNally).
Now Swiatek is chasing a unique two-fer in Paris: She’s made it into the doubles semifinals with American Nicole Melichar, too, giving her a chance to become the first player since Mary Pierce in 2000 to win the women’s singles and doubles trophies in Paris.
Swiatek does it by picking up balls early and smacking groundstrokes with thick topspin. Her power was too much for Podoroska, accounting for a 23-6 margin in winners
Another key to success for Swiatek, whose father was an Olympic rower, is her returning ability. She entered this contest averaging 5.4 breaks per match and added five more to the total.
And then there’s a less-measurable factor: Swiatek’s competitiveness. The one time she lost a service game, making it 4-1 in the second set, she swiped at the dirt near the baseline with her racket.
Then she buckled down and broke right back.
“I’m staying super focused. I’m, like, not letting my opponents play their best tennis,” Swiatek said. “So I hope I’m going to do that on Saturday.”
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