Iga Swiatek, tennis’ toughest test

Coco Gauff celebrated her virtual high school graduation in front of the Eiffel Tower two weeks ago, but she still has one more final exam in Paris. It is the toughest tennis in today.

Gauff, 18 and the youngest Grand Slam finalist since Maria Sharapova won 2004 Wimbledon, plays top-ranked Iga Swiatek of Poland, live on NBC, NBCSports.com/live, the NBC Sports app and Peacock Premium on Saturday at 9 am ET.

Gauff has been ticketed for this stage for years, but Swiatek has owned the WTA Tour for months, winning her last 34 matches dating to February.

“I have nothing to lose,” the 23rd-ranked Gauff said after winning her semifinal over 59th-ranked Italian Martina Trevisan. “She’s definitely the favourite.”

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Swiatek won both of their previous meetings in straight sets, though Gauff pushed her to a tiebreak on clay last year.

“From what I see on court, she’s developing every year basically,” Swiatek said after sweeping 20th-ranked Russian Daria Kasatkina in her semi-final. “When I see her, I tend to forget that she’s 18.”

A tournament both players remember is the 2018 French Open. Gauff, then 14, beat future US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez of Canada to reach the final.

As Gauff cooled down, a 17-year-old Swiatek was leading American Caty McNally in the other semifinal.

“I was actually preparing to play her kind of in the final,” Gauff said.

But McNally saved a match point, forced a third set and prevailed. Gauff ultimately won the tournament, becoming the youngest junior Grand Slam champion since Martina Hingis in 1994.

A month later, Swiatek won the Wimbledon junior title. That run included upsetting the top-seeded American Whitney Osuigwe in the first round and a quarterfinal 6-0, 6-1 thrashing of future US Open champion Emma Raducanu.

“I was so angry that I didn’t win junior French Open that I kind of took it on Wimbledon,” Swiatek, who listens to Led Zeppelin, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses before matches, said last year. “I think physically I was better than my opponents, than any junior player there. My motivation to win any Grand Slam, my anger at French Open, it really gave me a lot.”

In 2020, Swiatek entered the French Open ranked 54th in the world. Like Gauff this year, she was coming off her completion of high school. She romped through the draw, not dropping a set in the best display of unheralded dominance in more than 40 years.

Though Australian Ash Barty was the talk of tennis in 2021, Swiatek was the only woman to reach the second week of all four Grand Slams. She now credits the experience gained from that consistency that propelled her to this streak, seizing the No. 1 ranking after Barty’s shock retirement in March handed the crown to the Pole.

“She kind of plays like a guy,” said American Jessica Pegula, dispatched by Swiatek in the quarterfinals this week. “Ash was a similar way, where they don’t play like a typical girl hitting it kind of flat and the ball kind of goes through the court. She plays a little more unorthodox in the fact that she has a really heavy forehand, but at the same time she also likes to step in and take it really early, and I think clay gives her more time, and I think it makes her forehand even harder to deal with.

“Her game is suited for clay, definitely.”

Swiatek’s streak is now tied with the longest in women’s tennis since 2000, but as timing would have it, has not included a major title. Swiatek has acknowledged the pressure that her ranking, and her run, bring, making it a completely different situation than her other Roland Garros final.

“I try not to hold it inside, and I try to talk with the team, the whole team about it,” she said. “I couldn’t get rid of the expectations like fully, but I tried to accept that, that they are going to be there and it’s going to stress me a little bit more.”

Gauff, despite the Coco Mania of her 2019 Wimbledon fourth-round run at age 15, largely played outside of the mainstream radar at this Roland Garros. The focus was on Swiatek’s streak or the Rafael NadalNovak Djokovic showdown or another teen phenom, Carlos Alcaraz.

As the rest of the high seeds dropped early, Gauff became the first woman to reach a major final without facing a top-30 opponent. Saturday figures to be a test unlike any she has seen this tournament.

“I’m going to try to be aggressive at the right moments and patient at the right moments,” Gauff said. “She’s not going to give you much opportunities.”

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Coco Gauff’s French Open final exam: Iga Swiatek, tennis’ toughest test originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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