Since they both lost in the opening round in Rome, at their only clay-court tournament before the French Open, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek have taken radically different paths to their unexpected places in Saturday’s final.
Kenin, the 21-year-old American who won the Australian Open in February, has had to scrap and improvise to avert defeat, fighting and drop-shotting through four matches that lasted three sets.
But Kenin has worked her way into a much more authoritative place, as she demonstrated on Thursday. She blunted Petra Kvitova’s easy power and read the angles of her game like a mathematician, frequently taking a quick step in just the right direction and repeatedly winning the exchanges that mattered most in a 6-4, 7-5, semifinal victory on this blustery afternoon on Philippe Chatrier Court.
“She just has something you can’t teach: The bigger the point, the more she wants it,” said Lindsay Davenport, a former No. 1 who is now a Tennis Channel analyst.
Swiatek, an unseeded 19-year-old from Poland, has not had to dig nearly so deep. Instead, she been a force of nature, constructing points and demolishing the opposition without losing a set, or more than five games in any match.
Out of nowhere in this unusual Grand Slam tournament, no one has come close to finding a solution to Swiatek’s compact blend of offense and defense.
Not the No. 1 seed and former champion Simona Halep, whom Swiatek crushed, 6-1, 6-2, in the fourth round. Not the qualifier Nadia Podoroska, whom Swiatek routed, 6-2, 6-1, in a semifinal that lasted little more than an hour on Thursday.
Swiatek has yet to win a tour title. She has a surname that many tennis followers are still struggling to pronounce (try Shvee-ON-tek), yet here she is in her first Grand Slam final, with a chance to play in two this week if she and her doubles partner, Nicole Melichar, can win their semifinal on Friday.
“It seems unreal,” said Swiatek, who is ranked 54th in singles. “On one hand, I know that I can play great tennis. On the other hand, it’s kind of surprising for me. I never would have thought that I’m going to be in the final.”
The French Open, of course, has been something of a haven for wild results. Michael Chang won here at age 17 after serving underhand against No. 1 Ivan Lendl and then beating the great Stefan Edberg in the final. Gustavo Kuerten showed up in 1997 with a world ranking of 66 and a reservation at a two-star hotel, then cruised all the way to the trophy with his elastic strokes and surfer’s shuffle.
In 2017, Jelena Ostapenko arrived unseeded and without a tour singles title, then ran the table, derailing Halep in the final.
Clearly, shifting the tournament from spring to autumn in the year of the coronavirus has changed the Parisian public’s wardrobe (parkas, anyone?) but has done nothing to dampen the chances of the underdogs.
The women’s tournament has been a dizzying succession of upsets and introductions, with players like Podoroska, a 23-year-old from Argentina, making their French Open debuts with rankings outside the top 100 and beating up on the veterans.
The match between the fourth-seeded Kenin and seventh-seeded Kvitova was only the fourth between seeded players in the women’s singles tournament. The men will have a total of 11 such matches.
But it is hard to call the Swiatek-Kenin final a fluke. Swiatek’s game has been irresistible, and Kenin has already shown she belongs at this lofty level, winning her first major title at the Australian Open by defeating the local hero Ashleigh Barty and the two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza.
Kenin reached the fourth round of the United States Open last month, is 16-1 in Grand Slam singles play in 2020 and is now in her second Grand Slam final of the season, the sort of achievement typically reserved for Americans named Williams. She has turned things around in Paris after losing, 6-0, 6-0, to Victoria Azarenka last month in Rome, where Kenin sometimes looked overwrought and bounced a racket or two on the red clay. But, in what is becoming her trademark, she quickly reset and got back to business.
“I’m just really grateful with the way that I’m playing, with the way things are going,” Kenin said. “It’s not easy getting to a Grand Slam final. Having two this year, it’s really special.”
Like the Williams sisters, Kenin lives in Florida, in Pembroke Pines. But her story bears a greater resemblance to that of the now-retired Maria Sharapova, who left Russia as a child to take a long-shot chance at tennis stardom in the packed academies of Florida.
Kenin, nicknamed Sonya, was born in Moscow in 1998, long after her parents, Alex and Svetlana, had immigrated to the United States, where they soon returned with their daughter. Though Kenin often speaks Russian with her father, who is also her coach, she has only an American passport.
Like Sharapova, she was groomed bright and early to be a champion, attending tournaments and posing for photographs with the likes of Kim Clijsters. She also shares some of Sharapova’s inner fire, relishing the point-to-point combat while playing at an even brisker pace.
“Sonya’s not afraid to play Rafa,” Rick Macci, one of her childhood coaches, once said of Kenin and the prospect of facing Rafael Nadal.
Nor is Kenin likely to be afraid of facing Swiatek, particularly since she knows she has the edge in big-match experience.
“I’ve been there, done that. I know what the emotions are getting into your first Grand Slam final,” she said. “I’m hoping she’s going to be a little bit nervous.”
It will be their first match on the professional tour, but not their first at Roland Garros. Swiatek beat Kenin in the French Open junior event in 2016.
They both have come a long way in a hurry since then.
Swiatek, whose father was an Olympic rower, is the first Polish player to reach the French Open women’s singles final since 1939, when Jadwiga Jedrzejowska lost to Simonne Mathieu of France.
Swiatek has only recently focused fully on tennis, after graduating from high school this year. But she already has a big support team, which includes Daria Abramowicz, a sports psychologist.
“I always wanted to work with a psychologist because I had this belief that it’s like a big part of the game,” Swiatek said. “But my parents, they weren’t as open to that as I was.”
Though psychologists are nothing new in tennis, the emerging generation of stars seems more willing to be open about using them. Bianca Andreescu, the Canadian who won the U.S. Open last year at 19, has also emphasized the mental game.
In Swiatek’s view, Abramowicz has helped her manage her emotions under duress and helped her focus on the point at hand rather than the prize at stake. Walking out on Chatrier on Thursday, Swiatek told herself to treat the semifinal like a first-round match.
It worked, just as everything seems to have worked in her charmed 12-day run at Roland Garros. But Kenin is not the sort to step quietly aside and let another youngster pass her by.
Kenin moves around the court like a point guard who wants the ball, defines herself as “really fierce” and often reacts to her own winners with an exasperated look that basically says: “What took so long?”
When asked this week if she could pick one word to express what she loved most about tennis, she answered quickly: “Winning, definitely.”