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Swiatek or Gauff? We make the case for the French Open finalists

It’s no secret Iga Swiatek has been calling her own tunes for quite some time.

We mean this in a metaphorical and quite literal way. In only her second question in press Thursday following a swift semifinal win at Roland Garros, Swiatek was asked about her pre-match music druthers.

“Well, there are a few bands that I listen to before a match,” she said. “Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and Guns N’ Roses, they were always the three that were really kind of perfect for the situation.

Semifinal results: Swiatek storms past Kasatkina into second French Open final | Gauff reaches first Grand Slam singles final at French Open

“So I use music to kind of have something that’s going to get my brain busy and relaxed before the match. But also when I want to be more energetic, it really helps me.”

Whatever her rituals are, it’s unlikely she will change it up anytime soon. The top-ranked Swiatek is riding one of the longest win streaks in the past 22 years. Her win versus Daria Kasatkina was her 34th straight.

On Saturday, she will look to add to that total. Of course the stakes will be even higher this time around with a major title on the line — and with a fearless teenager on the other side of the net.

Coco Gauff made easy work out of her semifinal opponent, Martina Trevisan, on Thursday, where she became the youngest player to reach the final in Paris since Kim Clijsters in 2001.

At 18, Gauff speaks (and writes) with the maturity of a composed veteran. After her quarterfinal match, Gauff walked over the courtside camera and wrote, “Dream big.”

Which leads us to the obvious question: Can Gauff finally end Swiatek’s dream of winning another Roland Garros title? We make the case for both players.

Advantage, Swiatek

Iga the Inevitable. That has been the aura surrounding the 21-year-old Polish star who took over Ashleigh Barty’s vacated No.1 spot in April and has elevated the game ever since. Now, on the cusp of a sixth consecutive title and second major title, the challenge for Swiatek is to pull her cap down and stay on autopilot.

Swiatek is 8-1 in finals and has not lost a set in a championship match in more than three years. She is unbeaten in her last eight finals and only twice lost more than four games during that span.

At 21 years old, Swiatek brings the experience into Saturday’s final. She has been here before, on this very court, facing a feisty young American for the right to hoist the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen. Playing her first major final in 2020, Swiatek rolled, defeating Sofia Kenin 6-4, 6-1.

Swiatek combines incredible athleticism and speed on the baseline with a powerful attacking game. As Barty had her backhand slice, Swiatek has her forehand. It’s the shot that sets her apart and creates immediate matchup problems.

“It’s just difficult really to find a lot of holes in her game and even if you do, the fact that you’re going to have to do it every single time is also really tough,” said Jessica Pegula, whom Swiatek beat in the quarterfinals. “You’re not used to seeing maybe that type of ball with the slice all the time or someone that served that well.”

Swiatek is 2-0 against Gauff and has not lost a set. They first faced on the clay in Rome last year. Swiatek won 7-6(3), 6-3, and then this spring in Miami, she prevailed 6-3, 6-1. In both instances, Swiatek went on to win the title.

Gauff is one of the few players on tour who can match Swiatek’s athleticism and court coverage. And in Paris, she has posted comparable numbers to Swiatek in the return department.

But Swiatek has the advantage in her service games. She has won 85% of her service games compared to 71% for Gauff, and importantly, Swiatek has faced only 18 break points in the entire tournament. In contrast, Gauff has faced more pressure, staring down 48. And when moments get tight, as they would understandably be for the 18-year-old in her first major final, the double faults can come. The American has hit 33 in the tournament. Swiatek has hit five.

Since dropping her only set of the tournament, against Zheng Qinwen in the Round of 16, Swiatek has lost more than two games in a set only once. She says she’s improving with every match and actually playing freer as she approaches the finish line.

“It’s a nice feeling to have, because usually, it’s sometimes the opposite for other players when they are going to higher rounds they are more stressed,” Swiatek said. “I’m working pretty hard at the beginning to avoid that.” — Courtney Nguyen

Advantage, Gauff

I admit at first glance, Courtney, this is a fool’s errand.

Iga Swiatek has won 34 straight matches and is looking to equal Venus Williams’ run of this century, 35, with a win in Saturday’s Roland Garros final. Moreover, this would be Swiatek’s second French Open title and, based on her age (she turned 21 on Tuesday), there will be many more major championships. And – this cannot be overstated – she’s playing an 18-year-old in her first Grand Slam final.

But as we have learned over the past several years, Coco Gauff isn’t an ordinary teenager. In some respects, her run at Roland Garros is reminiscent of Swiatek’s stunning run through the field two years ago as an unseeded 19-year-old.

Swiatek’s breakthrough actually occurred in the fourth round when she knocked No.1 seed Simona Halep, a former champion in Paris, off the court in the fourth round, dropping all of three games. This is Gauff’s signature moment; is it also a watershed moment for women’s tennis?

Gauff is that gifted, fearless teenager staring down the establishment. She’s physically stronger, mentally more resilient than she’s ever been. Arguably, she won’t reach those peaks for another few years. Not only are her serve and groundstrokes more powerful that even one year ago, her court positioning, her tactics are much improved.

It’s been four years since Gauff thrust herself into the future champions conversation at the age of 14. She won the junior title at Roland Garros, became the No.1-ranked junior in the world and capped 2018 with a victory in the Orange Bowl 18s singles – the youngest champion in 15 years. From the beginning, her parents, Corey and Candi, have done a terrific job keeping her grounded.

“Ever since I joined the tour, or even at 8 years old, the next Serena, next this, next that, and I think I really fell into the trap of believing that,” Gauff said after defeating Sloane Stephens in the quarterfinals. “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.”

The emphatic win against Trevisan was the most recent example of a positive pattern that has emerged in Gauff’s trajectory. Two years ago, when they met in the second round at Roland Garros, Trevisan won in three sets. This time, with the finals on the line, it wasn’t really close. It happened against Stephens, too. Gauff lost a second-round match to her fellow American at last year’s US Open in straight sets, then turned it around in Paris with a 7-5, 6-2 win.

Much will be made of the 2-0 head-to-head advantage Swiatek has against Gauff. The World No.1 won last year in Rome and again in Miami back in March, but beware of that historic learning curve.

“I think a lot of the times when I play someone two or three times, even back in juniors, I would at least by the third time hopefully figured it out,” Gauff said. “I feel like I know what’s happening on the court and I know why I lost the match, and I know what I need to work on for the next time.

“I remember each loss pretty well. I mean, my grandfather always told me: Forget your wins; remember your losses. I remember each and every loss.” — Greg Garber

 

 

 




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