PARIS — It’s been so long since Iga Swiatek has lost at No. 1 (31 games in a row) and even since she only dropped a set – the last time was more than a month ago – that she could be forgiven if she couldn’t remember how to react when she got into trouble on a tennis court.
That’s why it was worth watching the 2020 French Open champion handle some tough spots in the third round at Roland Garros on Saturday.
Turns out, Swiatek didn’t panic and wasn’t distracted by thoughts of ending that dominant run that should result in a 6-3, 7-5 win over the hard-hitting Montenegro’s Danka Kovinic.
“Thinking about all these statistics doesn’t really help. So basically I try to be really strict in my thoughts and really focus on … finding solutions,” said Swiatek, a 20-year-old from Poland. “The thoughts are there, but I accept that.”
Kovinic also looked too closely at Swiatek’s predecessor at the top of the WTA rankings, the now-retired Ash Barty, during a 6-0, 6-0 loss at the Australian Open in January.
After Saturday’s setback, Kovinic said she was struggling with a nerve problem in her right shoulder and felt tingling in that arm and two of her fingers. She also said she sent a message to Swiatek as they shook hands at the net.
“I told her, ‘Go ahead.’ It’s really great for tennis, for our sport, what she does. Obviously, she has something special that the rest of us don’t have,” Kovinic said in 95th place. “She has something special. What it is, I don’t know. “
Well, let’s try to answer. Swiatek’s serve, for example, is solid but not particularly fast; Her fastest Saturday was 108 mph, 7 mph slower than what Kovinic was producing. Swiatek’s groundstrokes are smooth, sure, but like everyone, they can falter; Her forehand was particularly problematic on a windy afternoon with temperatures hovering around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, accounting for 17 of her 23 unforced errors.
However, speed cannons and stats fail to account for two standout traits: the ability to stay in the moment and a willingness to think your way out of a corner.
Early on, as a 3-0 lead dwindled to 4-3, Swiatek took eight straight points to own that set. In the second, she lost four games in a row, trailing 5-4. Maybe it was time to think “uh-oh”. Instead, Swiatek adapted to Kovinic’s style, using cunning rather than trying to balance might with might, and she reeled off the final three games to finish the job.
“Of course,” said Swiatek, “he played a bit smarter.”
Her next opponent is Zheng Qinwen, a 19-year-old Chinese who is ranked 74 and was playing her second Grand Slam tournament.
“I really want to play them,” said Zheng, who was 6-0, 3-0 up when Alize Cornet retired with a left leg injury.
Cornet’s withdrawal drew boos from the crowd at Court Philippe Chatrier, which the French player said “hurt more than my injury itself”.
“What’s amazing is that people dared to boo me on the pitch when I had to abandon the game because I was in pain,” Cornet said. “But sometimes the French audience surprises me and not always in the right direction.”
Cornet said she was injured during her previous match, a win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and is considering not playing Zheng at all as she is in only her second Grand Slam tournament.
“You can’t generalize things,” Cornet said. “There were only a handful of people in the stadium so maybe they made a lot of noise. But it’s really too much when you see what I’ve been giving on the pitch for so many years. I think it would have been far easier for me not to come on the pitch, not to face it, to make myself vulnerable with this injury.
“So, yeah, no, it’s a real pain because it’s unfair and when things are unfair it hurts. But again, most people are no doubt sad for me and understand what’s happening, but this handful of idiots really, really, really makes you feel bad.”
Other women’s fourth-rounders include Jessica Pegula versus Irina-Camelia Begu, who was fined $10,000 after throwing her racquet earlier in the week, which bounced off the stands and brushed a child in the stands; Daria Kasatkina vs. Camila Giorgi; and Madison Keys versus Veronika Kudermetova.
Pegula and Keys are two of five American women remaining in the tournament.
No. 11 Pegula, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabers, and Swiatek are the only two of the top-15 seeds remaining in the women’s bracket.
“She’s kind of on a different level at the moment than all of us. Yeah, it’s a bit scary,” said Pegula, who needed 10 match points to wrap up her first-round win, then eight more in her next match, but she sealed Saturday 6-1, 7-6 (2) -Beating 2021 semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek on her first chance.
One more win apiece and Swiatek becomes Pegula’s problem in the quarterfinals.
“Their athleticism and defensive ability are really, really good,” Pegula said. “And then I think she’s become a lot more offensive this year. She was more aggressive when needed.”
Swiatek has won her last four tournaments and 48 of her last 49 sets; The exception took place on April 23 in the semifinals in Stuttgart against Liudmila Samsonova. The last game Swiatek lost was against Ostapenko, the 2017 French Open winner, on February 16 in the round of 16 in Dubai.
She has won a total of 15 sets this season, 6-0, but Swiatek showed on Saturday she can handle it when things get tight.
“It wasn’t surprising, it wasn’t strange,” Swiatek said. “It’s not like I’ve forgotten how to play these kinds of sets.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.