Paolini faces titanic battle with supreme Swiatek in French Open final

Estimated read time 5 min read

It has been nearly two months since Iga Swiatek last returned home to her new apartment in Poland. Since then she has barely had a moment to breathe. After leading her country to victory away in Switzerland at the Billie Jean King Cup in mid-April, the world No 1 became the first player to win the Madrid and Italian Opens since they were extended to successive two-week events last year, a feat requiring laser focus across four weeks.

Then came Roland Garros, the big one. Over the past two weeks Swiatek has marched past opponents without hesitation, establishing a 20-match winning streak as she returns to the final.

She has shown her superiority over the rest of the field, particularly on clay, dismantling so many of the best players in the world and even improving her record against the now world No 2, Coco Gauff, to 11 wins and one defeat, easily brushing her aside in Thursday’s semi-final.

She has also demonstrated her supreme fight, staring down match points against Aryna Sabalenka in the Madrid final and Naomi Osaka in Paris, two of the most successful active players on the tour, yet somehow finding a way through. This has been such an exhausting time, physically and particularly mentally, yet Swiatek’s fortitude has been unparalleled under pressure every time.

After overcoming all those challenges, Swiatek has positioned herself on the verge of history. As she faces Jasmine Paolini on Saturday afternoon, the 23-year-old will attempt to win her fourth Roland Garros title in the past five years and her third in a row. In the Open era, Justine Henin and Monica Seles are the only women to have pulled off a singles three-peat in Paris.

At the turn of the century, Henin set the tone for excellence on clay among the women, winning three successive titles at Roland Garros and four in total. At her young age, Swiatek continues to chase down Henin’s records at warp speed.

Standing between Swiatek and further indelible contributions to tennis’s history books is one of the least physically imposing figures of all. Paolini, the 12th seed in Paris, is only 1.63 metres (5ft 4in) tall but her progress over recent years has transformed her status from a plucky top 100 player to one of the best in the world. After a steady rise, this year has proved a breakout one for her, with a WTA 1000 title in Dubai. Now she will compete for a grand slam title.

Iga Swiatek lifts the Suzanne-Lenglen Cup after winning the women’s singles final match at the 2023 French Open on 10 June 2023.View image in fullscreen

Despite regularly facing stronger, more intimidating opponents, Paolini holds her ground primarily thanks to a powerful and spinny forehand that can pierce defences, generate angles and be key to landing consistent blows. She is also extremely quick and an excellent returner. Swiatek and Paolini have met twice in the past, with Swiatek’s bakery in business both times: A 17-year-old Swiatek won 6-2, 6-1 in a 2018 Czech ITF challenger and then won 6-3, 6-0 en route to her 2022 US Open title.

Paolini, who has Ghanaian and Polish heritage and speaks Polish, will count on the fact she is a much better player since those meetings. The 28-year-old broke into the top 100 only four years ago and she describes her late-blooming career as a consequence of her blossoming belief.

As recently as a few years ago, Paolini did not fully trust she could hang with the best in the world, but with every new experience against a top player and the feedback she took from those increasingly close encounters, she gradually came to understand she could compete with them.

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Paolini could never relate to players such as Novak Djokovic who dreamed of greatness since their youth; understanding her own power has been a process.

“I played some big matches last year with a few top players, and I think that helped me to have more confidence in myself,” she said. “I was, like, ‘OK, I can play with those players.’ Match by match, at the end, I think now I believe more in myself. I step on court and I say, ‘OK, it’s tough, but I have a chance.’ Before it was like I cannot win these matches. I have to do a miracle.”

Jasmine Paolini celebrates her women’s single semi-final victory against Mirra Andreeva at the French Open on 6 June 2024View image in fullscreen

This is a historic tournament for Italian tennis being the first time the country has seen a man and a woman each reach the singles semi-final. In the women’s game, Italy’s golden era, when Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta became major champions, is firmly in the past. Paolini’s connection to that time is through Sara Errani, a former No 5 and 2012 French Open finalist, still ranked inside the Top 100 at 37 years old. Together, they have reached the women’s doubles semi-finals.

Now she will step on to Court Philippe-Chatrier for unequivocally the toughest task in women’s tennis as she tries to topple Swiatek on clay, in a final and on the court that, after her largely vacant apartment in Poland, is fast becoming her second home.


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