French Open 2021: Defending champ Swiatek beaten by super Sakkari; Gauff also beaten

Sakkari into first Major SF after beating back-to-back Slam champs in Kenin and Swiatek

Maria Sakkari
Maria Sakkari (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

If the seedings had played themselves out at this year’s Roland Garros, the top 16 women in the world—aside from the missing Simona Halep—would have made up the fourth round as the second week of action hit Paris’s resplendent clay.

In the event, just three top-16 players were left standing: Serena Williams, Sofia Kenin and Iga Swiatek, Major champions all.

The upsets had begun from Round 1: Losses for No6 seed Bianca Andreescu, No12 Garbine Muguruza, and No16 Kiki Bertens.

They continued in Round 2: No2 Naomi Osaka and No11 Petra Kvitova [both pulling out for different reasons], along with No1 Ash Barty, No9 Karolina Pliskova, and No10 Belinda Bencic.

Elina Svitolina and Aryna Sabalenka joined the losing ranks in Round 3, and so it continued.

And of the three rightful seeds in the fourth round, all three should by rights have made the quarters, too, but only one did so: the defending champion Swiatek. Just one of the other eight was ranked inside the top 20.

Maria Sakkari, seeded No17, had not set the world alight thus far this season, her best runs being semis in Abu Dhabi and Miami, though her giant-killing fitness and energy had already picked up the scalps of Muguruza, Kenin and Osaka—but none of them on clay.

Yet in Paris, fitter and more confident than ever, the Greek disposed of the No14 seed Elise Mertens, and then the No4 seed Kenin. However, the 20-year-old 2020 champion of Paris Swiatek had continued her winning ways from last year through to the quarters, not dropping a set in 11 straight Roland Garros matches.

Sakkari for her part had made the fourth round at the two hard-courtMajors in New York and Melbourne, but had never got beyond the second round in Paris—until now. But there was no getting away from the fact that Swiatek was the favourite not just for this match but for the title.

And Swiatek initially looked the more assured against a slightly tentative opponent, breaking to lead 2-0. However, the Polish champion then played a loose game to hand back the break, and had to fight off break point in the fifth game, too.

Swiatek seemed to struggle with the sun on her ball toss, and time and again she missed her first delivery, double faulted, but ultimately came through, 3-2. However, all the while, Sakkari was playing with increasing aggression and confidence.

By the time Swiatek headed back to the same end of Philippe-Chatrier, she still had the same problem, and the Greek fired an off-forehand winner to bring up more break chances. A big forehand from the Pole went wide, and Sakkari would serve for the set, 5-4.

The Greek did face a break-back point, but she continued to find the lines with two fine serves, and completed the set, 6-4, with a forehand winner and a huge roar to her box.

She had ended the Swiatek run of 22 straight sets at the French Open, and had looked the superior player for most of this opening set. Meanwhile, the defending champion’s statistics made unusual reading for a player usually so able to make the attacking points, but here she had made only seven winners against 15 errors.

So she took a comfort break, but it did little to help her rhythm or accuracy. Instead it was the bundle of energy from Athens at the other end of the court who was making the plays, striking the winners, and full of bounce and aggression. Sure enough, Sakkari immediately broke in the second set, and held with some pin-point spinning serves, 2-0.

But maybe the reason for Swiatek’s inability to respond to this challenge was about to become clear as she called for the physio. After a long discussion, she went off court for treatment.

The Pole returned to serve with heavy strapping around her upper right thigh, and did break the run of five Greek games in a row. However, Sakkari did not waver, and maintained her lead to serve for the match at 5-4. And she continued to bristle with confidence and energy. A drop-shot winner, an ace, a wrong-footing forehand, and finally a big serve, and she was into the semis for the first time, 6-4.

It was a quiet, downcast exit by the former champion, who had looked every inch the repeat champion during the course of the tournament. But this time, she did not have the speed and ease of movement to control rallies in the way her fans have grown to admire.

She revealed afterwards that the stress levels had been rising throughout the tournament:

“I struggled with picking the right place where to play. I couldn’t play some shots that usually give me points… Also I think, past couple weeks hit me kind of yesterday. I just didn’t have good days, I couldn’t do physical recovery well because I was stressed… I couldn’t even sleep well yesterday… I think I was feeling everything twice as much as I should. It was hard to rationally just see what’s going on.

“I made a decision to tape [my leg] just to feel sure. Gave me a little bit more confidence when I was moving. Still my reaction was bad. I didn’t play well, tactically and also technically.”

As for Sakkari, the tennis of the bubbling, bold and confident Greek has now made her the favourite to ‘go all the way’ in Paris. And there is a bubbling quality to her personality too. She said after her match:
“Well, I don’t want to get too excited because I don’t have a day off tomorrow. I still have to play, stay focused. But it’s a big achievement, for sure. I’m enjoying my tennis and myself. I have people around me telling it was going to come. You know, they were right. Maybe I was the one who was telling them, I was impatient… ‘When and when and when?’ It actually came this week, so I’m happy about it.”

Sakkari is now one of only two seeds remaining in the final four, and will play Barbora Krejcikova, who just missed out on a seeding at a ranking of 33, but who arrived in Paris as the Strasbourg champion and having made the Dubai final earlier this season.

The 25-year-old Czech has beaten Sakkari in their previous two matches, and has brought some superb form to both the singles and doubles draw in Paris. She took out Svitolina, then Sloane Stephens, and reached the semis by beating the 17-year-old superstar Coco Gauff after an hour and 50 minutes, 7-6 (6), 6-3.

It was a close affair, however, as the 24-seeded Gauff, who reached the semis at the Rome 1,000 and then won Parma, broke first, but missed five set points to concede the opening tie-break.

Gauff, junior champion in 2018, went 2-0 up in that tie-break, then 6-4 up, but could not convert her chances, and grew increasingly frustrated in the second set after going 0-4 down.

The young American’s quality surfaced to hold and then break back, but it was too late, and Krejcikova headed into her first Major semi-final—making a complete set of four debutantes at Roland Garros this year.

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