In the middle of the first set, the score 3-3, it looked like Sofia Kenin, the five-seven dynamo from Bradenton, Florida, was going all-out on her let-it-rip offense. Having made up for a three-game deficit, she aimed bullets at the lines, hit high-paced cross-court forehands. She had good reason to expect to win the French Open, the No. 1 seed having exited several rounds earlier. A small detail: it was the girl across the net who had sent her home. And she had yet to lose a set in two weeks of competition.
As Bill Tilden noted early in the last century, the thing in tennis is that you have to factor in not only the way you are playing, but the way your opponent plays. He further observed there is a third party, the ball.
Miss Kenin’s offensive skill went to pieces against the rock-solid defense and near-perfect forehand of a teen from a town near Warsaw, Iga Swiatek. Balls that looked like certain winners in the seventh game found a steady and confident racquet arm ready to send them right back down the line, setting up a winner to the other side or a gentle drop just over the net.
It was absolutely astonishing. Miss Swiatek seemed unable to miss. Over two relatively short sets, she had 24 winners to Miss Kenin’s 10, winning twice as many rallies of over four shots. She did it with a seeming ease that belied the intensity of her concentration on a game plan that kept working.
Iga Swiatek, 19, is the first Polish champion at Roland-Garros in the Open Era, eclipsing the shrewd and tenacious Agnieszka Radwanska, who never got past the quarterfinals here. The last winner from Poland was Jadwiga Jedrzejowska, in doubles, long before the Open Era. It was when Bill Tilden was still competing and neither Iga nor Sofia was born.
A long time ago, but the point Tilden made about balls being factors was totally serious and is as relevant today as it was in his time. The ball bounces according to how it is struck: flat, spinned, sliced; it also responds to the surface and the climate. In Paris’ damp and chilly October, the clay surface absorbs velocity while the molecules inside it huddle together to stay warm; both factors contribute to less bounce and slower pace. You do not see as many aces on service, and a clean winner is harder to pull off.
As it happens, Miss Iga, elegantly long-limbed and graceful, seemed able to consistently get on top of every shot sent the other side of her court, while, by contrast, she set up Sonya — as her pals call Miss Sofia — on one side and then on one to the opposite corner. It was not additional pace as such, which would be wasted in these conditions; it was moving the opponent where you want her and then putting the ball where you want it. Miss Iga’s set-ups repeatedly were as stunning as they seemed easy, even on the cold small screen on which most people, unfortunately, have had to view matches at which only a few hundred spectators are permitted.
She had done the same against Simona Halep, the 2018 champion, in the fourth round, beating her soundly (6-1, 6-2) in the upset of the tournament, as Miss Halep, seeded No. 1, was on a 17-match winning streak and had just won the Internazionali, aka Italian Open, on the clay courts of Rome.
In the unusual conditions, Miss Iga had the consistent court sense that slipped away from her opponents. She always knew where everything was and, as remarked by Ana Gabriela Torres — a fine teaching pro in New York who played on the Hofstra Pride and is a source of invaluable insights — her calm focus let her fit her own game right into whatever she came up against over two weeks. The way she always seemed to be where she had to be and always chose the right shot to maintain the initiative on the point was uncanny. The girl’s got game.
Not only she stopped Miss Sofia’s rally cold by saving a break at 3-3 in that first set, she then broke for 5-3, and it was basically over. Miss Kenin was suffering from what appeared to be a cramp in the thigh, and the second set was, to put it politely, over quickly, 6-1. Typically, the last game began and ended with moderately long rallies that Miss Iga, dressed all in white leggings and her flowing top that looks like a smock, controlled like a gliding angel. She met each ball with time to spare, made her shot, and moved intuitively toward the next one.
There is joy in Warsaw and in the cute charming little town of Raszyn, where, we can guess, Iga is already hailed as Iga the Great — certainly not Iga the Terrible; she seems much too nice for that. Sofia Kenin has reason to be happy too, a Slam in January, a final in October, at 21 she and her new best-friend-rival are quite possibly the sport’s future. They might even be an inspiration to the guys, the American guys and the Polish guys, who frankly need it, the way they are playing.
There should be more joy on Sunday, as the girl from Palm Springs, Desirae Krawczyk, teams up with Alexa Guarachi in the ladies’ doubles final, prior to the men’s final between guess who. Miss Krawczyk is from California, like Mr. Pleszczynski, but you know, history, family; for my part I must stay unbiased, fair, and accurate. Free men and free markets, and a free press to watch them. If you can keep ’em, ma’am. Ben Franklin did not play tennis, that anyone knows, but he would have loved these girls. He was like that.
Tennis, like America, is a melting pot, and the stew — or the gumbo? — works when what you put into it, even as it blends, stays true to its own nature. Iga Swiatek played her game, and it served her well.