Shortly after Aryna Sabalenka’s hopes of a duel between the top two in the French Open final had crumbled to dust, Iga Swiatek, the top seed, also found herself in a potentially precarious position on Court Philippe Chatrier.
Swiatek’s first-set lead did little to stop Beatriz Haddad Maia from carrying herself as if she had zero doubts in her ability to win. Throughout the second set, Haddad Maia threw the kitchen sink at her, whipping up heavy topspin forehands, crushing returns, sweeping into the net to finish points. The Brazilian, 27, forced a tiebreak and then she reached set point.
Under immense pressure, though, Swiatek responded. After grinding out a forehand error from the Brazilian, at 6-6 the Pole somehow found enough space from the middle of the court to produce a sharp-angled crosscourt backhand winner, an utterly outrageous shot. As the two players tussled to decide the tie-break, the match ended with four successive groundstroke winners. Three of them came from Swiatek’s racket.
The 6-2, 7-6 (7) semi-final win over Haddad Maia will probably only be remembered as another of her straight-sets wins en route to another final, but between the mental strength she exhibited and the spectacular shotmaking she produced under immense pressure, it was a clear reminder of why all signs suggest that she is on the way to becoming an all-time great.
On Saturday, Swiatek will return to Court Philippe Chatrier in pursuit of her third French Open title in four years and her fourth grand slam title overall aged only 22. She currently boasts a 27-2 (93%) record in Paris having reached the fourth round on her debut. Her record since: champion, quarter-finalist, champion, 2023 finalist.
Should she pull off the victory, it is undeniably the beginning of a dynasty on the dirt. Only seven women have won three French Open titles in the Open era but the only player to do so at 22 was Monica Seles, the prodigy of all prodigies, who won her first three French Open titles before the age of 20.
This has been a fascinating season for Swiatek following her rise to No 1 last year. Her success from last season has inspired new, tougher rivals. At times, it has been difficult. But even as she took her losses to Sabalenka and Elena Rybakina, her consistency has been sublime. Of her nine tournaments this year, she has reached five finals and two other semi-finals. Both times she lost before the semi-final stage, she was defeated by Rybakina, including the Khazakhstani’s retirement win last month in Rome. Swiatek has constantly put herself in positions to achieve further success, and at the tournament that has so far defined her career, it is no surprise that she has done so again.
After years of injuries that arrested her progress and growth, Muchova enjoyed the best moment of her career so far as she produced a monumental performance in one of the matches of the year to topple Sabalenka 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5) 7-5 on Thursday afternoon after facing a match point at 2-5 in the third set. But now the 26-year-old faces the task of recovering and elevating her level against the No 1 and the dominant clay player.
Muchova’s weapons are undeniable; her serve and forehand are potent enough to pierce all defences, and she pairs them with delicate variety. The Czech’s smooth, varied and technically sound game will present a completely different look for Swiatek compared to many other players.
Muchova will constantly aim to close down the net, will move Swiatek to uncomfortable positions with her drop shots and slice, and try to remain unpredictable throughout.
One positive for Muchova is how rarely they have faced each other, meaning neither is too familiar with the other’s game. Swiatek, as the favourite, will have to decipher her unique playing style on the day. Their only meeting was in the first round of a WTA 250 tournament in Prague in 2019 when Swiatek, a 17-year-old qualifier, was ranked 106. Muchova, a 22-year-old wildcard, was ranked 95th.
“It was my first tournament or second tournament with Daria [Abramowicz - her sports psychologist],” said Swiatek. “So it was much, much different. I felt like a rookie and I didn’t know if I should be in that place or not.”
They were both at the very start of their careers then, just trying to figure out where they stood against the best players in the game. Now they will play for one of the game’s ultimate prizes.