How experience is paying off for French Open finalists Gauff and Swiatek

PARIS – Following up a breakthrough performance is daunting. Regardless of the result in Saturday’s Roland Garros final, Iga Swiatek and Coco Gauff will both be able to turn the page to a new chapter of their careers, emerging from the long shadow of their teenage breakthroughs.

Though three years apart in age, Swiatek and Gauff were junior contemporaries. In fact, the two were a point away from facing off in the junior Roland Garros final four years ago. Swiatek held match point but fell in four sets to Caty McNally. Gauff, then 14, would go on to beat her future doubles partner to win her sole junior Slam title. Swiatek, took the frustration from that loss into Wimbledon a few weeks later and left as the junior champion. 

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“I think that for me, this final, I want it for myself, but I think I’m really happy to play her specifically, because I always wanted to play her in a final, and I knew it was going to happen eventually just from, even in juniors, that it was going to happen, just from the way our games were both projecting,” Gauff said. “I just didn’t think it would happen so soon.”

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Less than two years on from their concurrent junior success, Gauff and Swiatek were thrust into the spotlight. Gauff made the first splash, making her tour debut at 2019 Wimbledon and defeating Venus Williams en route to the Round of 16. Swiatek’s moment came a year later at 2020 Roland Garros, where she decimated the field to win her first major title, which also was her first senior title. 

When it came to projecting their future prospects, talent and work ethic were never the questions surrounding either player. There was never a sense that they were one-hit wonders or unnecessarily hyped. But there is no cheating time and experience, and both players, though ambitious sometimes to a fault, charted their own paths in the wake of their early success. 

“I think ever since I joined the tour, or even when I was young, even eight years old, [people said] the next Serena, next this, next that, and I think I really fell into the trap of believing that,” Gauff said.

“It’s important that you have high hopes for yourself, but also, at the same time, it’s important to be in reality and I think that’s where I am. I’m in reality where I’m enjoying the moment and enjoying the situation.”

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For Gauff, being dubbed “The Next Big Thing” fueled her aspirations but also came with a heavy weight. Even at 16-years-old, she was adamant that she was ready to win a major. Her progress was steady up the rankings – she already has two WTA titles – but her single-minded pursuit of major success was dampening her spirits. For long swaths, the infectious joy and intensity that had charmed the world as a 15-year-old had given way to a seriousness that she only recently shed by talking with her family and regaining her perspective. 

“I think there’s a fine line between believing in yourself and almost pushing yourself too much,” Gauff said. “I think at that moment I was pushing myself too much to do the results, where when I was in the quarterfinal, I didn’t even enjoy the moment. I didn’t even care really. Now, being in the final, I’m enjoying it.”

“I think there is definitely a difference between ready and almost wanting it too much. I think at that moment I wanted it too much, whereas now I definitely want it. Yes, who wouldn’t? But also, it’s not going to be the end of the world if it doesn’t happen for me.”

Throughout her fortnight, Gauff has talked about “not freaking out” when things don’t go her way in matches. She has kept her cool and steadied on, playing focused but relaxed tennis to make her first major final. She hasn’t even lost a set in Paris. 

“I wasn’t expecting it,” Gauff said. “I’m going to be honest. This year I hadn’t had the best results going into this. So it wasn’t expected at all, really.”

Swiatek may have made her splash onto the world scene after Gauff, but the 21-year-old’s two-year journey to a second major final has also been one of managing expectations and embracing the challenge at hand. But while Gauff came out of her Wimbledon run convinced she could win the tour’s biggest tournaments soon, Swiatek came out of her Roland Garros title run with doubts. 

Was Paris just lightning in a bottle? Or could she actually maintain a consistently high-level week after week?

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With the help of her team, which includes a traveling sports psychologist, Swiatek put in the work to sort out her fears, doubts and anxieties. Now that she has found herself as the dominant World No.1 on a 34-match winning streak, it’s easy to forget that a year ago, Swiatek was still chasing consistency. She spoke openly of her admiration of Ashleigh Barty’s consistency throughout the 2021 season, when the now-retired Australian won five titles, including Wimbledon. 

On Saturday, Swiatek will go for her sixth consecutive title of 2022. 

“I think I have a game to basically win tournaments, but it’s not only about the game,” Swiatek said. “Everything has to click, and these tournaments are pretty tough and long. You can see that Grand Slams have a different atmosphere and sometimes the favorites are losing early. So I try to really lower my expectations and just take it step by step.

“But, yeah, I feel like this season everything clicked, the work that I have been doing physically, tennis-wise, and mentally. Last season for sure I was doing a lot, but I was still getting experience. Right now I’m using the experience to get everything to work properly.”

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