French Open 2020: Sofia Kenin hopes to solve Iga Swiatek 'problem' for second Grand Slam title

Sofia Kenin is 16-1 at Grand Slams in 2020 and is hoping to stop an unlikely finalist in 19-year-old Iga Swiatek when they meet in the French Open final on Saturday.

Tanuj Lakhina October 10, 2020 13:00:50 IST
French Open 2020: Sofia Kenin hopes to solve Iga Swiatek 'problem' for second Grand Slam title

Sofia Kenin is looking for her second Grand Slam title of the year having won the Australian Open. AP

Form is a crucial factor when assessing predictions for any sport. We look at performance at most recent tournaments to gauge how well a certain player/team could do. There are other factors, definitely, but momentum is a key aspect for players in gaining confidence and for the outside world in predictions.

And yet it doesn't explain Sofia Kenin in Grand Slams this year. She entered 2020 with an 11-11 record at Majors, with her best finish being a fourth round appearance at the French Open in 2019 (where she beat Serena Williams). At the start of the year, she made the second round in Brisbane and Adelaide before moving to Melbourne. There she went past Ashleigh Barty and Garbine Muguruza to lift the title.

Coming into French Open, after the short turnaround from the US Open, she only played in Rome. In the first match, she went up against Victoria Azarenka and was completely swept aside: losing 0-6, 0-6.

“It was kind of a disaster,” said Kenin on the loss in Rome.

A bagel (6-0) in tennis is not uncommon, but a double bagel is. It was only Kenin's first in her career. A bagel and breadstick (6-1) is forgotten far quicker than a double bagel is. It stays with the respective player, opponents and coaches. A loss like that and you're back to the drawing board.

But no such reaction was warranted in this case. She works with her dad (Alex) as coach and it comes in the same year as her Australian Open title and fourth round at US Open. There was no real damage control necessary. The loss to Azarenka was a bad day at work and a great day for the Belarusian.

“We came to Paris and I had a week or so to practice, to get used to the clay,” she said after her first round win. “I just tried to not think about that (Rome) match. That match I’m never gonna watch.”

Three weeks later, she is into the final in Paris beating the likes of Danielle Collins and Petra Kvitova. She is now 16-1 at Grand Slams in 2020 and into her second Slam final — such feats are usually reserved for Americans whose names finish in Williams.

It is worth pointing out that it's not new for Kenin to fare poorly at a tune-up and have a completely different fortnight at a Slam. It happened in Melbourne and it happened in New York. She went into Flushing Meadows with a first round loss at the Western & Southern Open.

Kenin's abilities are once again visible in Paris and even more so on Thursday against Kvitova. One wouldn't describe the American's tennis as effortless or full of artistry. It's all about finding the right shot for the opponent. It is all about tactics to win.

If against Collins it was mixing things up, moonballs and drop shots, against Kvitova it was the deep backhands. Giving Kvitova no chance of dictating play. She had come into the match with 100 winners from the backhand wing and used that to perfection against the Czech player.

“I'm a problem solver,” Kenin said after the 6-4, 7-5 win. “You obviously have to expect tough situations. It's a tennis match. You know your opponent wants to win. They want to find your weakness.”

On Saturday, she would need to solve a problem no one has been able to solve in the last two weeks. Not last year's runner-up Marketa Vondrousova, not a challenging Hsieh Su-wei, not tournament surprise packages Martina Trevisan and Nadia Podoroska and not even the top-seed Simona Halep.

Unlike Kenin's path which has seen three sets in all but two matches, 19-year-old Iga Swiatek (pronounced Shvee-on-tek) is yet to drop a set. She's only dropped 23 games. Swiatek is a perfect blend of attack and defence helped significantly by a massive forehand.

“It seems unreal,” said Swiatek who is hoping to become the first player from Poland to win a Grand Slam title. “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.”

Swiatek — whose father is an Olympic rower — is still handling education on the side and is the first Pole to reach a French Open final since 1939 and first overall at a Slam since Agnieszka Radwanska at 2012 Wimbledon.

Part of her team is 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.”

French Open 2020 Sofia Kenin hopes to solve Iga Swiatek problem for second Grand Slam title

Iga Swiatek is in her first Grand Slam final. AP

She told herself to treat the semi-final like a first round match. That may have worked well against a newbie to such a stage as well but that's not the same with 'Sonya' Kenin.

The difference, as per Kenin, will be the nerves. “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.”

“I’m going to be, like, an ‘underdog,’” Swiatek acknowledged, using her fingers to make air quotes.

She listens to 'Welcome to the Jungle' by Guns N'Roses when she takes court. And as the lyrics go, "You can taste the bright lights, but you won't get there for free...

If you got a hunger for what you see, you'll take it eventually

You can have anything you want, but you better not take it from me."

Then again, when Kenin was asked what she loved most about tennis, without hesitation she said, "Winning, definitely. I love winning more than anything, so, yeah, winning."

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