Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Iga Swiatek grabs another French Open championship

Poland's Iga Swiatek celebrates with the trophy after victory against the Czech Republic's Karolina Muchova in the French Open final at Roland Garros on Saturday, June 10, 2023, in Paris.   (Tribune News Service)
Matthew Futterman New York Times

PARIS — Iga Swiatek is once more the queen of clay.

Swiatek, the world No. 1 from Poland, beat Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic on Saturday to claim the French Open women’s singles championship.

Muchova, whose smooth and athletic game has been one of the sport’s best kept secrets for years, struggled with errors early but found her form and gave Swiatek the final of her life, forcing her to use every bit of the clinical, relentless approach that had made her the world’s top player — and then some — for more than a year.

Swiatek outlasted Muchova, 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 in a breathtaking, up-and-down battle that met the moment of one of the grandest stages in the sport. When Muchova’s second serve tumbled into the net on Swiatek’s first match point, Swiatek dropped her racket and brought her hands to her eyes, as Muchova came around the net for a well-earned congratulatory hug.

Soon there was the increasingly familiar sight of Swiatek emerging in the stands for a celebratory huddle with her team and a few quiet words with her sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, who started working with her when she was a shaky teenager and helped mold her into a steely champion.

“A big challenge,” Swiatek said of her triumph in the understatement of the day. “Really proud of myself that I did it.”

Swiatek has been virtually unbeatable at Roland Garros since 2020. With Saturday’s win, she captured her third French Open singles title in four years. Since 2019, her record in the tournament heading into the final was 28-2, which may not rival the 112-3 record of Rafael Nadal, but give her time. Swiatek just turned 22 last week and has given few hints that she will be slowing down.

Other than the occasional battle with her psyche, she seems to be getting better each year, especially at the French Open, a tournament she loves more than any other.

For Muchova, the final capped a remarkable comeback from a year ago, when she sprained an ankle in a third-round singles match at Roland Garros and had to withdraw. The injury was the latest in a series of ailments that had long kept her from realizing the potential that so many of the game’s coaches, players and experts have seen in her for years.

That loss sent her spiraling out of the top 200, forcing her to play a series of smaller tournaments to regain her standing. She entered this tournament ranked 43rd in the world, although few in tennis believed there were 42 women better than Muchova.

There is no clock that regulates the length of a tennis match, but much of the sport is about controlling time, that is, finding a way to make an opponent feel rushed, like she has no chance to get to the ball, while figuring out how to give yourself all the time in the world. For more than a year that has been Swiatek’s signature, and it’s exactly what she did to Muchova on Saturday.

For Muchova to have a chance, she was going to need to control the clock by extending points and find enough time to get comfortable on the biggest stage of her career.

Swiatek had her first break of Muchova’s serve and the lead after just seven minutes. She led 6-2, 3-0 after an hour, while Muchova was still trying to find her footing.

“The balls are coming fast,” Muchova said of the experience of facing Swiatek. “If you have a chance you have to take it because there may not be another.”

And then she did. Shot by shot, point-by-point, game-by-game, she did. The strokes grew crisp and precise, the points stretched out, she slid into her shots so gracefully at moments that it looked like she was dancing. Her volleys stung as the packed crowd of more than 15,000 fans chanted her name, urging her on.

Swiatek wobbled, and as the match moved to the two-hour mark it was all even at a set apiece. Two minutes later, Muchova broke Swiatek’s serve for a third straight time and had her first lead of the day.

Muchova and Swiatek had not played a competitive match since 2019, before either of them had established themselves at the top of the game. But they have practiced many times since then, and Swiatek has raved about Muchova’s talents.

“Great touch,” Swiatek said of her competitor. “She can also speed up the game. She plays with that kind of, I don’t know, freedom in her movements. And she has a great technique.”

All of it was there Saturday on one of the sport’s biggest stages, in one of the great Grand Slam finals in recent memory. Swiatek, who had sprinted to a seemingly insurmountable lead, wobbled as Muchova found her form, then battled from a service break down twice in the deciding set and found the answers and shots she needed.

Swiatek had never lost a Grand Slam final and won all of those matches in straight sets. One of the few lingering questions was how she would respond if pushed into the crucible of a third set with everything on the line.

At first, it didn’t look good. She double-faulted to give Muchova yet another break of serve to start the deciding set and looked finished as Muchova surged to a 2-0 lead.

Mary Carillo, a longtime tennis commentator, likes to divide players into two groups — those who have fangs and those who do not, those who don’t just win from the front but relish the chance to brawl and fight to the final ball and those who pack it in.

Muchova had shown her fangs in the semifinal and in mounting her comeback Saturday. Now it was Swiatek’s turn. She won 12 of the next 14 points to take back the lead, only to watch Muchova bite once more, turning the third set into a roller coaster.

She charged forward behind deep balls that had Swiatek on the run and finished points with touch or a blast or a line-pasting swipe, holding her own serve and breaking Swiatek’s for a 4-3 advantage.

“After so many ups and downs I stopped thinking about the score,” Swiatek said. “I wanted to use my intuition.”

That worked. Muchova’s lead lasted seven minutes, until an ill-timed drop shot settled to the bottom of the net and Swiatek was even once more and hearing the deafening chants of her name to the beat of a bass drum.

“This was so close but yet so far, but this is what happens when you play one of the best,” Muchova said as she held the silver runner-up’s platter.

With Muchova serving to stay in the match, Swiatek took dead aim on her returns at Muchova’s feet and nailed her targets, putting Muchova on her heels and in a quick hole. Double match point arrived as Muchova pulled a forehand wide. With a double-fault from Muchova, Swiatek had her crown, the queen of clay for another year.

“Sorry for being so difficult,” she told her team during the awards ceremony.

Four Grand Slam finals. Four championship trophies. Tops in the world. Swiatek doesn’t seem that difficult at all.