At the French Open, Iga Swiatek had a shock in store last Monday. The top seed, playing in her fourth-round match, actually lost a set of tennis. Falling in a close tiebreak against Zheng Qinwen, it seemed that a tiny hole had appeared in the armour of the seemingly unstoppable Polish superstar. The other top seeds had already fallen by the wayside in the women’s draw. But Swiatek, who had won 28 consecutive matches before this tournament, surely wasn’t going to lose? Was she?
The answer was a resounding no. Almost as soon as the danger started to flicker, the Pole had extinguished the flames, romping through the next two sets for the loss of just games. That opener remains the only set she has dropped in this tournament. It is hard to find a superlative for just how impressive Iga has been in Paris. Remember, the early rounds saw upset after upset in the women’s draw, including the loss of defending champion Barbora Krejcikova in the first round. But while chaos reigned around here, the Pole – who celebrated her 21st birthday this week – simply eased her way through match after match without breaking stride.
Her dominance has been so complete that the idea of Grand Slam progression – that each round becomes tougher as players face better opponents – has become obsolete. Her semifinal against Daria Kasatkina was a case in point. If a fan did not already know what was going on, they would have struggled to believe that this was a semifinal at a Grand Slam. A double fault on the match’s opening point was about as tough as it got for Swiatek, as she swept through the contest unruffled in barely more than an hour.
All of this is happening against the backdrop of Swiatek’s history-making unbeaten run. This streak now stands at an astonishing 34 matches, equalling the great Serena Williams’ effort from 2013. If Swiatek wins Saturday’s final, she will tie Venus Williams for 35 wins, the best since 2000. While she did not become #1 until Ash Barty’s retirement in March, her run of victories actually began before that. Along the way, she has taken the title on hard courts in Indian Wells and Miami, before triumphing on the clay Stuttgart and Rome And she’s not done yet.
To say she has been class above the competition is an understatement. One of the fascinating things about this Roland Garros is how it has mirrored the WTA season this year, highlighting the inconsistency of its top players. At this year’s French Open, Iga Swiatek was the only member of the top ten to progress past the third round. The WTA rankings change so quickly that world #5 Anett Kontaveit will rise to #2 after Roland Garros ends, despite winning just three matches since March and crashing out in the opening round in Paris.
The struggles of other top players in the WTA is almost a problem for Swiatek. The absence of consistent rivals who will reliably progress deep into a tournament is arguably detracting from her greatness. Just as some doubted Federer’s brilliance in the early 2000s by questioning the level of his rivals, already there are voices murmuring similar things about Swiatek.
Some question if she would have won these 34 matches in a row if Ash Barty had retired. Or if the rusty Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep had not spent extended time out of the tour. These are questions that can of course never be answered. All the same, it’s hard to escape the feeling that she needs someone to push her to her limits right now, to find out just where those limits are.
After all, modern tennis is a sport that is often defined by rivalries. The greatness of one player is so often compared to – and strengthened by – their competition. In the WTA’s recent history, the Williams sisters had each other as rivals, but in their early years they also had the likes of Justin Henin, Jennifer Capriati and Martina Hingis. Later, they would add Maria Sharapova and Victoria Azarenka to that list.
On the men’s side, everyone knows of the genius of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. But it is not just their bursting trophy cabinets that prove it, but also their epic battles against one another. Time and time again they have pushed each other to new heights. They became mutual yardsticks for success. As a result, no one can question the strength of their competition – because their competition is each other.
On Saturday, it will be the tenacious Coco Gauff who is the competition. She stands between Swiatek, not just for the Suzanne-Lenglen cup, but also a piece of modern tennis history. The in-form American has yet to drop a set in this tournament – ironically putting her a step ahead of her red-hot opponent. If anyone can bring out the best in this seemingly invincible French Open Iga Swiatek, it may well be her. Whoever wins, the fans in Paris will hope there is at least some competition.
Main photo from Getty Images