Swiatek surges past Sakkari to reach No2 in the world

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The last two standing in Indian Wells this spring have been among the top performing women of the last year.

Already in the top six before the start of the tournament, both Iga Swiatek and Maria Sakkari were now in contention for world No2 if they could beat one another in one of the biggest and most challenging tournaments in the WTA calendar.

Both, in fact, were guaranteed to rise to career highs whatever the outcome: Swiatek from No4 to at least No2, and Sakkari from No6 to No3. The champion, whoever it should be, would become the first from their respective nations—Poland and Greece—to lift the formidable weight of BNP Paribas Open’s crystal trophy.

Indeed Swiatek, just 20 years old, and winner of the French Open while still a teenager, led the WTA Race already. Sakkari was No3, behind the only Major champion so far this year, the absent Ash Barty.

Little surprise, then, that Swiatek led the tour in 2022 in match wins, the young Pole at 19 for three losses, and the 26-year-old Greek at 16 for four.

Swiatek’s season began with a semi run at both Adelaide and the Australian Open, then she won the first WTA1000 of the year in Doha. And that was a notable run: she beat Sakkari in the semis, her first win over the Greek at the fourth attempt.

Sakkari, a semi-finalist at two Majors last year, was runner-up in St Petersburg before losing to the Pole in Doha. But this fifth final of her career was the first at the 1000 level, and a sign of her ever-rising ability, fitness and determination.

But the smartest measure of their form this fortnight was the way they handled their respective tough draws.

In the semis, Swiatek beat former champion and No1 Simona Halep 7-6(6), 6-4, and that after four more top-50 players including No29 seed Madison Keys and No16 seed Angelique Kerber. And in three of her matches, she had battled back from a set down, taking well over nine hours to reach this final.

Sakkari took out defending champion, the in-form Paula Badosa, in the semis, in three sets, but had also beaten Petra Kvitova and Elena Rybakina. Not only had she conceded only one set, but she received an early retirement in the fourth round too: Total time on court just six and three-quarter hours.

Would that make a difference? Would that 3-1 head to head in Sakkari’s favour make a difference? And would the strong wind on centre court make a difference?

The first game was not auspicious for Swiatek, two double faults, two errors, a break to love, clearly not judging the wind at all well.

But it was the same for Sakkari, who double faulted on break-back point.

Now Swiatek was serving into the sun as well as coping with wind, and two more double faults earned the Greek a couple more break chances. On the second, a stunning cross-court rally went to Sakkari with a blistering angled winner, a break for 2-1.

Yet again, the Pole broke back, and finally there was a hold, with Swiatek closing in to close her serve with a volley winner. This was the latest wrinkle in the steep learning curve that is her attacking style of tennis.

Sakkari threw in a couple of net charges herself, but serving with the wind to her back, her serve was troubled, and two double faults in a row handed the break and advantage to Swiatek, 4-2. It did not last, though, in this topsy-turvy match where the exception was to hold. Sure enough the Pole conceded the sixth of seven breaks in the set.

Now it was the Greek’s turn to hold, stringing eight of nine points for 4-4, followed by a Swiatek hold. So Sakkari had to serve to save the set, and fended off a first set point with a dazzling forehand winner, a second with a huge serve, but on the third, Swiatek stepped in to pound her return and was rewarded, 6-4.

The Pole got off to stronger start in the second, and then piled the attack on the Sakkari serve but could not take advantage of two break points. The wind still played a big part, and double faults peppered Swiatek’s serve, and gusts carried balls long and forced mishits, but she held on: No breaks thus far, and amid the errors there were plenty of classy rallies to please the fans.

It was, in the event, Sakkari who conceded the break first, in the fourth game, and Swiatek held to love for 4-1. The Greek was up against it now, with her opponent in full flow, and she responded with some big strikes, but a forehand error conceded another break, and Swiatek would serve for the title.

The young Pole, then, sealed the match with a forehand winner, 6-1, and tossed her racket into the air in jubilation.

The crowd, who has taken this delightful young woman and her exciting tennis to its heart, but there was also warm applause for the pugnacious effort of Sakkari. Conditions made it impossible to serve up a perfect final, but these two competitors did a very fine job.

And so Swiatek is the new world No2, and is surely destined for the very top very soon.

Sakkari is at a career-high No3, matching compatriot Stefanos Tsitsipas as the highest ever Greek.

And within days, both will be hoping to break still more new ground in Miami.

Source: Sport Review


Author: Ellen Garcia