The champion is gone and with her the last pillar of stability in the women’s French Open draw. Iga Swiatek went down 6-4, 6-4 to a superb, brave performance from Maria Sakkari from Greece. Swiatek’s departure means this year’s tournament will see four first-time grand slam semi-finalists battling for a maiden title with more excitement and thrilling uncertainty.
In four successful rounds, Swiatek had handled its title defense with the class and defeated several lively opponents without conceding a set, which only reinforced her presence as a tournament favorite as other top players fell. But when the fall came for the Pole, it was a logical result.
Sakkari, the 17th seed, has been one of the most improved players on the women’s tour. Together with her young English coach, Tom Hill, she has transformed her serving from an average delivery to one of the best in the world.
Her confidence has taken some time to grow to the point where she felt she could compete for the biggest titles. Once she has established herself within the top 20, the remaining question was whether she really had the nerve to take the next step. She has taken several this week.
In fleeting moments early in the meeting, the weight of the event favored the defending champion. But with the score 4-4, Swiatek’s forehand collapsed after relentless pressure from Sakkari. The first set culminated in a tense, difficult final showdown with Sakkari’s serve. She saved a break point with a brilliant 99 mph second serve. After a long duuce game, Sakkari shut out the set with a backhand down-the-line winner.
The momentum continued to favor Sakkari in the second set, while Swiatek’s physical problems with her left thigh eventually led her to take a medical timeout of 6-4, 2-0. Sakkari missed an opportunity for a double break as she led 3-1 and 15-40 on Swiatek’s serve. She had to wait for many minutes during the medical timeout that could have ruined her momentum. Sakkari then had to serve the match against an opponent who was clearly ready to fight.
She handled it all with utter professionalism. Sakkari burst to a 40-0 lead of 6-4, 5-4 behind a drop-shot winner, an ace and a forehand that took the racket from Swiatek’s hands. After pulling back to 40-30, the Greek slammed down another 99 mph second serve, which did not return. With that, she achieved the greatest victory of her life.
“I just really enjoyed today,” Sakkari said. “Before I got into the fight, I sat alone and talked to myself. I said, ‘You know what? It is a very important battle. But just enjoy it. ‘This is one of the best stadiums in the world, so I had to. ”
Sakkari, the highest-ranked player left in the draw, will next face Barbora Krejcikova for a place in the final after the Czechs defeated Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3 in the previous quarter-final. Krejcikova saved five set points in a first set that she never really led until she had won it, shooting four of those set points with bold, point-ending trajectories.
Krejcikova’s story is unique, even in a sport that boasts so many different trails to the top. A former double No. 1 and two-time grand slam winner, she has found singles success in the exact opposite order to most. She is also a former protégé of the late Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon women’s singles champion, who is always on her mind. “I always think of her,” she said. “Every time I go to court, I step out of court, I always think of her. I always wonder what she would tell me after such a run, all these winning fights and all. I’m just sorry I can ‘t actually hear her and she can’ t really say anything. ”
Despite such great frustration that she even devised her racket in the second set as the match ran away from her, Gauff (17) went her first Grand Slam quarterfinal on a positive note. “I’m obviously disappointed that I was not able to close the first set,” she said.
“To be honest, it has happened before. After the match, Enzo, my frame partner, told me that this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really believe that. ”