NEW YORK: Good as she’s been this year, Iga Swiatek came to the US Open unsure of what to expect.
She complained that women use different, slightly lighter, tennis balls than the men do at Flushing Meadows, where she’d never been past the fourth round. She was trying to grow accustomed to the noise and distractions, the hustle and bustle, of the Big Apple. And she arrived with a record of just 4-4 since her 37-match winning streak ended in July.
None of that matters now. Cementing her status as her sport’s new dominant figure by winning what is expected to be the last tournament of Serena Williams’ career, the No. 1-ranked Swiatek outplayed No. 5 Ons Jabeur 6-2, 7-6 (5) in Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday to claim her first championship at the US Open and third Grand Slam title overall.
“It’s something that I wasn’t expecting, for sure. It’s also like a confirmation for me that the sky’s the limit,” said Swiatek, who is 55-7 in tour-level matches with seven trophies in 2022, both best in the WTA. “I’m proud. Also surprised a little bit.”
She acknowledged harbouring concerns about the US Open after a couple of shaky showings at hard-court tune-up tournaments.
It turned out OK: She is the first top-seeded woman to win the US Open since 23-time major champion Williams in 2014.
“I feel like on the court, I can just do my job,” Swiatek said, “and I’m happy about it, that I kind of can make these doubts go away.”
Swiatek, like Jabeur, travels with a sports psychologist, and it took some fortitude to finish this one off. At 6-5 in the second set, Swiatek held her first championship point. Right before Jabeur served, Swiatek jogged over to the sideline to change rackets — an unusual choice at that moment.
When action resumed, Swiatek missed a backhand. That could have been tough to recover from. Indeed, Jabeur pushed things to the tiebreaker, which she then led 5-4. But Swiatek steeled herself, took the last three points and soon was accepting the silver trophy and a $2.6 million winner’s check, joking: “I’m really glad that is not in cash.”
The 21-year-old from Poland won the French Open for the second time in June and is the first woman since Angelique Kerber in 2016 to collect two major titles in a single season.
“She’s really set the bar very high. It’s great for our sport,” said Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia who will rise to No. 2 in the rankings on Monday.
She is the first African woman and first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final and was participating in her second in a row.
But she is 0-2 at that stage, including a runner-up showing at Wimbledon in July.
“Definitely, I’m not someone that’s going to give up,” said Jabeur, whose support team wore black shirts with white writing that read “Yalla Habibi,” Arabic for “Let’s go, my love!”
“I am sure,” she added, “I’m going to be in the final again.”
Didn’t help on this sunny, 85-degree Fahrenheit (29.4 Celsius) afternoon that Jabeur needed to deal with Swiatek, who has won her past 10 finals — all in straight sets — and was great from the get-go.
Jabeur did not face a single break point in her semifinal victory, but she got broken right away when Swiatek laced a cross-court backhand winner off a short ball to cap a 15-stroke exchange.
“The only match here where I started that well,” said Swiatek, who had to come back from a set down in the fourth round and the quarterfinals.
Eight minutes in against Jabeur, Swiatek had grabbed 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 edge.
“Put a lot of pressure on me,” Jabeur said.
Using her heavy topspin forehand to take charge from the baseline, Swiatek dictated the tempo and trajectory of points. She ran her opponent this way and that, never letting Jabeur use the sorts of spins and variety that she’s accustomed to.
When Jabeur did show off some of what she can do, Swiatek would manage, more often than not, to elongate points. She used her strong court coverage, backed by a soundtrack of squeaky sneakers as she darted everywhere, sometimes even sliding as she arrived at a ball, the way one does on red clay, her favourite surface.
When Jabeur missed a slice forehand early in the second set, she dropped her racket to reflect her despair. A few points later, she flung her racket while off balance and falling face down. A running, down-the-line backhand passing shot from Swiatek on the next point made it 2-0 in that set. Swiatek raised a clenched fist and yelled, “Come on!”
Then Jabeur did make things interesting, briefly.
But only briefly.
She got to 4-all and, after ending up on her back when an off-balance backhand won a point in the next game, she stayed there, enjoying the moment, pumping her fists while laying on the ground.
Jabeur earned three break chances in that game, any one of which would have allowed her to serve for the set. She could not cash in there, though, missing a groundstroke on each.
Swiatek needed to wait 10 minutes from her first match point to the one that closed the contest, but close it she did. Maybe she’ll feel more comfortable at the US Open from now on.