Kenin, 21, will face unseeded Swiatek, 19, in French final
Sofia Kenin entered 2020 with an 11-11 record in Grand Slam action. Never had made the quarterfinals at any clay-court tournament until this trip to Roland Garros — and lost her only tuneup match on the surface 6-0, 6-0 last month.
Look at the 21-year-old American now.
Already the owner of a major trophy from this year’s Australian Open, the No. 4-seeded Kenin moved into the French Open final by beating No. 7 Petra Kvitova 6-4, 7-5 Thursday.
Kenin will carry a 16-1 mark in Grand Slam action this season into Saturday’s championship match against Iga Swiatek of Poland.
“I’m going to be, like, an ‘underdog,’” Swiatek said, using her fingers to make air quotes.
Swiatek is just 19. She’s ranked 54th. She’s never won a tour-level title. She’d never been past the fourth round at a Slam. And she’s been as dominant as can be so far at the French Open.
Swiatek became the lowest-ranked women’s finalist at Roland Garros since the WTA computer rankings began in 1975, advancing with her latest lopsided win, this one 6-2, 6-1 against Argentine qualifier Nadia Podoroska.
“It seems unreal. 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. It’s crazy,” Swiatek said. “I just kept believing in myself. It’s amazing for me.”
She has won all 12 sets she’s played in the tournament and dropped merely 23 games.
Kvitova, a two-time Wimbledon champion, came in having won every set, too. But she hadn’t played anyone close to Kenin’s caliber.
The lefty from the Czech Republic had grabbed 77% of her service games in the tournament, but Kenin stole two of the first three. Part of it was strong returning. More of it was the manner in which Kenin was moving Kvitova around, pushing her this way and that and pinning her to the baseline with well-struck forehands and backhands.
Also working in Kenin’s favor was an ability to sense where a ball was headed and use her speed to track it down, repeatedly stretching points that seemed lost.
Eventually, that appeared to make Kvitova play as if she felt that she needed to try to do more, maybe do too much, because she would cut off points early by attempting to end them — and, too often, she would miss the mark.
By the end, Kvitova produced 31 unforced errors, to 20 for Kenin, whose shouts of “Come on!” grew louder as the end grew closer. Her intensity also came through when she chucked her red-white-and-blue racket.
When Swiatek’s 70-minute tour de force ended before a crowd in the hundreds at Court Philippe Chatrier — there was a daily limit on spectators because of the coronavirus pandemic — she asked for more noise, waving her arms and cupping a hand to her ear.
Swiatek vs. Podoroska was the first women’s semifinal at Roland Garros between unseeded opponents since 1983 — and only one, Swiatek, truly seemed ready for the stage.
Podoroska is ranked 131st, the first female qualifier in the professional era to get to the final four in Paris.
Just in case someone might get the idea this was a fluke for Swiatek, who listens to “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses in her headphones before stepping out on court: She eliminated 2018 champion and No. 1 seed Simona Halep 6-1, 6-2 in the fourth round, after defeating 2019 runner-up Marketa Vondrousova by the same score in the first.
Swiatek (pronounced shvee-ON’-tek) has been on the rise, and the tennis world’s radar, for a couple of years now.
In 2018, she won the Wimbledon junior singles title and the French Open junior doubles title (with Coco Gauff’s current partner, Caty McNally).
Now Swiatek is chasing a unique two-fer in Paris: She’s made it into the doubles semifinals with American Nicole Melichar, too, giving her a chance to become the first player since Mary Pierce in 2000 to win the women’s singles and doubles trophies in Paris in the same year.
Swiatek does it with tremendous play at the baseline, picking up balls early and smacking big groundstrokes with thick topspin. Her power was too much on this breezy afternoon, accounting for a 23-6 edge in winners against Podoroska, a 23-year-old from the same town as soccer superstar Lionel Messi.
Another key to success for Swiatek, whose father was an Olympic rower, is her returning ability.
She broke for a 3-0 lead by smacking a backhand return winner, followed by another return so good that it forced Podoroska into a mistake. Swiatek entered this contest averaging 5.4 breaks per match and she added five more to her total.
And then there’s a less-measurable factor — Swiatek’s competitiveness and grit. The one time she lost a service game, making it 4-1 in the second set, she swiped at the dirt near the baseline with her racket.
Then she buckled down and broke right back.
“I’m staying super focused. I’m, like, not letting my opponents play their best tennis,” Swiatek said. “So I hope I’m going to do that on Saturday.”