The summer of 2019 was a good time to be a teenager on the WTA tour. 18-year-old Amanda Anisimova reached the Roland Garros semis, 19-year-old Marketa Vondrousova finished as the runner-up, 15-year-old Coco Gauff announced herself at Wimbledon, 17-year-old Caty McNally took a set off Serena Williams at the US Open, and of course 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu trumped them all by winning the title in New York. It was a heart-warming throwback to the days of teenage phenoms ruling the roost, and as good an indication as any that the women’s "NextGen" was ready to step up.
Lost amid the bustle was the breakthrough run of another teenager: Poland’s Iga Swiatek. The 18-year-old reached the fourth round at Roland Garros, which was naturally overshadowed by the deeper runs of Vondrousova and Anisimova. But perhaps there was another reason why she didn’t generate as many headlines as the others?
When Swiatek’s game first hit our screens, it didn’t seem as exciting or unique as that of the others. She didn’t have the easy power of Anisimova, the spin wizardry of Vondrousova, the dramatic flair of Gauff, the finesse-based attack of McNally, or the eclectic all-court command of Andreescu. Her march through the Roland Garros draw was also largely unremarkable; she put away three mid-tier players with very little theatre, and then quietly faded away against Simona Halep in the fourth round.
But in a mark of how quickly a young player destined for great things evolves, Swiatek has turned that script on its head with her run at this year’s Australian Open. After a year spent getting acclimatized to the tour, the Pole has learned to express herself more freely on the court in just about every aspect of her game. And her considerable skills were on full display in her 7-6, 5-7, 5-7 loss to Anett Kontaveit in the fourth round.
Kontaveit was coming off a barely believable show of dominance against Belinda Bencic in the third round, and was widely expected to have too much firepower for her young opponent. But as soon as the match started it was clear that the Estonian wouldn’t have it nearly as easy as she did against Bencic.
Swiatek matched her experienced opponent stroke-for-stroke from the baseline, and sometimes even outdid her. The teenager doesn’t possess as much raw power as Kontaveit, but her technique and timing are second to none.
Swiatek took everything Kontaveit threw at her and returned it with interest, refusing to be bullied into retreating behind the baseline. She also changed the dynamic of rallies at will; her disguise on the down-the-line backhand in particular was so good that it often ended as a clean winner even when struck at half speed.
And yet all that still seemed insufficient, as Kontaveit’s consistently deep hitting elicited one error too many from the youngster. The Estonian went a break up at 4-3 in the first set, and even though she got broken back immediately, she went ahead again and served for it at 6-5. But Swiatek would not fold, and she not only broke back again but also clinched the tiebreaker with some clutch play.
The second set was where Swiatek really opened up her shoulders, showing in no uncertain terms why she was such a highly regarded player on the junior circuit. She started taking her forehand early and also going after her return, which earned her an early break. Mid-way through the set she even brought out a tweener that would have made Nick Kyrgios proud, before finishing the point with a deft volley.
This was not a player with a boring game; this was a player who had pretty much every trick in the book up her sleeve.
But with the finish line in sight at a set and 4-3 up, Swiatek couldn’t keep the nerves at bay. She stuck to her attacking game-plan, which meant her tightening arm had less room to work with. Kontaveit on her part astutely recognised her window of opportunity, and kept the ball in play long enough to allow Swiatek to unravel.
The Estonian wrapped up the second set in almost no time and raced to a double break lead in the decider as Swiatek seemed to be running out of energy. The youngster took a medical timeout towards the end of the second set and offered only token resistance in the first six games of the third. And when Kontaveit served for the match at 5-1, Swiatek seemed to have decided that going for broke was her only option.
Incredibly, that somehow worked. Swiatek mounted just enough pressure on Kontaveit with her aggressive hitting, and this time it was the Estonian’s turn to choke. The Pole broke twice in succession to get the set back on serve, and if she had somehow taken it to a tiebreaker she’d have been favored to win it.
Unfortunately for her, that was not to be. With the whole court open at 5-6, 30-30 Swiatek hit a regulation forehand just wide, and followed that up with a backhand down the line that missed by a foot. Kontaveit had managed to stay the course just when it mattered, while Swiatek faltered down the home stretch – in both the second and the third sets.
Kontaveit is now into her maiden Slam quarterfinal, where she will meet Simona Halep. In some ways this is as much of a breakout tournament for her as it is for Swiatek, and she would have gained plenty of confidence from learning that she can do to her opponents what many of her opponents have been doing to her over the years: outlast them with consistency. Kontaveit struck 29 winners to 42 from Swiatek, but also made far fewer errors than her opponent – which proved to be the difference in the end.
Considering Swiatek is just 18, that kind of profligacy is par for the course. But what isn’t par for the course is the way Swiatek fought back in the decider even when all seemed lost. Over the first eight sets in Melbourne – she won three straight-setters coming into the fourth round – Swiatek showed off her physical skills. But in her last set she flaunted her mental fortitude, which has to be seen as the biggest sign of her growth as a player.
We’ve known from her junior days that Swiatek can play; she won the junior Wimbledon singles title and the junior French Open doubles title in 2018, and was always in the conversation of unmissable young prospects. Now, a year after seemingly being surpassed in the race by her more ‘exciting’ peers, Swiatek has shown she can not only match their eye-catching flair, but can also compete like a seasoned pro.
It’s still a good time to be a teenager on the WTA tour, and Iga Swiatek is as compelling an example of that as anyone.
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Updated Date: Jan 27, 2020 14:42:32 IST