NEW YORK (AP) — As good as she’s been this year, Iga Swiatek came to the US Open not knowing what to expect.
She complained that women use different, slightly lighter tennis balls than the men in Flushing Meadows, where she had never made it past the fourth round. She tried to get used to the noise and distraction, the bustle of the Big Apple. And she arrived with a record of just 4-4 since her 37-game winning streak ended in July.
None of that matters now. Reinforcing her status as the new dominant figure of her sport by winning what is expected to be the last tournament in Serena Williams’ career, the No. 1 ranked Swiatek defeated No. 5 Ons Jabeur 6-2, 7-6 (5) at Arthur Ashe Stadium on Saturday to claim her first championship at the US Open and third Grand Slam title overall.
“Just don’t expect much, especially for this tournament. It was such a challenging time, you know?” said Swiatek, who is 55-7 in tour-level matches with seven trophies in 2022, both the best in the WTA.
“Certainly, this tournament was also very challenging because it is New York. It’s so loud. It’s so crazy,” she said after becoming the first top woman to win the US Open since Williams in 2014. “I’m really proud that I was able to handle it mentally.”
Swiatek, like Jabeur, travels with a sports psychologist and it took some courage to complete this one. At 6-5 in the second set, Swiatek took her first championship point. Just before Jabeur served, Swiatek jogged to the sidelines to switch rackets – an unusual choice at the time.
When the action resumed, Swiatek missed a backhand. That may have been hard to recover from. Indeed, Jabeur pushed things to the tiebreak, which she went on to lead 5-4. But Swiatek braced himself, taking the last three points and soon taking home the silver trophy and a $2.6 million winner’s check, joking, “I’m really glad it’s not 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 win two major titles in one season.
“She has set the bar really high. It’s great for our sport,” said Jabeur, a 28-year-old from Tunisia who will rise to second in the rankings on Monday.
She is the first African woman and the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam final, competing for the second time in a row.
But she is currently 0-2, including a runner-up show at Wimbledon in July.
“Certainly, I’m not one to give up,” said Jabeur, whose support team wore black shirts with white lettering that read “Yalla Habibi”, Arabic for “Let’s go, my love!”
“I’m sure,” she added, “I’m going to be in the final again.”
It didn’t help on this sunny 29.4 degree Celsius afternoon that Jabeur needed with Swiatek, who has won her past 10 finals – all in straight sets – and has been great from the start.
Jabeur didn’t suffer a single breakpoint in her semifinal win, but she was instantly broken when Swiatek pulled a cross-court backhand winner out of a short ball to cap off a 15-stroke exchange.
Eight minutes later, Swiatek had taken 12 of the first 14 points for a 3-0 lead.
“Put a lot of pressure on me,” said Jabeur.
Swiatek used her forehand with a heavy topspin to take the lead from the baseline, dictating the pace and trajectory of the points. She ran her opponent back and forth, never letting Jabeur use the kind of spins and variation she’s used to.
When Jabeur showed what she can do, more often than not, Swiatek managed to extend points. She used her strong field coverage, backed by a soundtrack of squeaky sneakers as she darted everywhere, sometimes even sliding when she got to a ball, like you do on red clay, her favorite surface.
When Jabeur missed a slice of forehand early in the second set, she dropped her racket to reflect her desperation. A few points later, she threw her racket as she was off balance and fell face down. A running, down-the-line backhand-passing shot by Swiatek at the next run made it 2-0 in that set. Swiatek raised a clenched fist and yelled, “Come on!”
Then Jabeur made it interesting.
But only briefly.
She came to 4-all and after landing on her back when an unbalanced backhand won a point in the next game, she stayed there, enjoying the moment, as she lay on the floor pumping her fists.
Jabeur got three break chances in that game, each of which she could have served for the set. However, she was unable to cash in there, as she lacked a foundation in each.
Swiatek had to wait 10 minutes from her first match point to the point the match closed, but closed them. Maybe she’ll feel more comfortable at the US Open from now on.
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