Rome Open 2022: Super Swiatek beats Sabalenka; into fifth straight final with 27th straight win
Defending champion and world No1 on track for fourth consecutive WTA1000 title
Where to begin in guiding No3 seed Aryna Sabalenka as she faced the woman who has dominated the season, Iga Swiatek?
The Pole went big from the very beginning, winning her first career title as a teenager at the French Open in 2020, where she dropped on average just four games in each of the seven matches. She was ranked 54.
She won her next tournament too, in Adelaide 2021, then her first 1000 in Rome, and was seeded No5 when she was beaten at the WTA Finals by Sabalenka in the first of their three meetings.
Then a semi-final run at the Australian Open preluded what has become an unbeaten run of 26 matches as she notched up three 1000 titles in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, followed by victory with her switch to clay in Stuttgart. Now, she was No1 in the world, and had two wins over Sabalenka, on both hard and clay courts.
There were no signs of that level dropping off as she began the defence of her title in Rome. Swiatek led the tour with 33 match-wins, 25 of them in straight sets, and 13 of those sets were 6-0 score-lines—including in her victory over former US Open champion, the returning Bianca Andreescu in the quarter-finals.
And it was not as though her victories this season had been against weak opposition. Her finals were won over No7 Anett Kontaveit, No6 Maria Sakkari, former No1 Naomi Osaka, and No4 Sabalenka.
And yet all the while, she was adding extra bite, tactical smarts, and attacking mindset to her all-court game. After beating Andreescu, she talked of focusing on her consistency, admitting, “This year I feel like it clicked.”
Here, in short, the women’s tour was watching the growth and flowering of a great player—at still just 20 years old.
In Sabalenka, she faced a formidable powerhouse of a player who, just 24 herself, had notched up 10 titles from 16 finals, including big tournaments such as Madrid, Doha and Wuhan. It had taken Swiatek to deny her the title in Stuttgart, too. And rather like Andreescu the day before, the Belarusian got off to a promising start with an exchange of breaks—only to see Swiatek break again and hold for 3-1.
From then on, the Pole was on the attack off both wings, moving like quicksilver in defence, breaking things up with net chases and drops, and broke to love for 5-2. She completed the set with a love hold, 6-2, having won more than twice as many points as Sabalenka.
The second set also went Swiatek’s way, after she broke in the first game. But the score-line did not do justice to Sabalenka’s effort, intensity and power. Twice she worked break points in the second game, failing to convert, 0-2, and she resisted long and hard in the third game, saving three break points before finally losing it, 0-3.
Meanwhile, Swiatek was hitting the kind of hot streak that saw her run away from Andreescu in the quarters: She held to love for 4-0.
Just when Sabalenka looked to have an advantage on serve in the fifth game, Swiatek whipped two return-of-serve winners and then a blistering return for yet another break point. However Sabalenka was not about to concede a love set, fought off break point for a hold, and then called the trainer for some treatment to her back.
Swiatek kept warm with some practice serves, but in the heat of the next game, a double fault gave Sabalenka break point. However, the mental toughness and confidence of Swiatek came to the fore, once again, to deny the break, hold for 5-1, and then she broke once more for set and match, 6-1, in under an hour and 20 minutes.
Sabalenka, who had run out of ideas when her full-blooded ball-striking was not enough to break down Swiatek, made too many errors—the inevitable result of her big-hitting style. In contrast, the cool, calm and brilliant Swiatek extended that run to 27, with just one more win required to defend her Rome title.
She would face world No10 Ons Jabeur, herself on an impressive streak having won her first 1000 tournament in Madrid. She also reached the final in Charleston a month ago, and arrived in Rome at her career-high No7.
The Tunisian and her crowd-pleasing, all-court tennis had taken time to come together on the senior tour: she won the Roland Garros juniors back in 2011. And she was breaking new ground beyond just her ranking. Jabeur won her first title in Birmingham last year to become the first Arab woman to win a WTA title, and her victory in Madrid made her the first African player to win a title at that elite level.
In the quarters, her performance over No4 seed Sakkari showed off not just her tennis but her passion and mental fortitude: From 6-1, 5-2 down, Jabeur won 10 of the next 11 games to win 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, and extend her winning streak to 10 matches.
Against the unseeded No23 Daria Kasatkina, she had won their last three matches, most recently in straight sets in Stuttgart last month. This spring, she had notched up a tour-leading 16 wins on clay, and a measure of her tactical guile and creativity on a tennis court has been writ large in her statistics: a tour-leading 793 winners this season, including 98 drop shots and 98 aces.
Kasatkina, though, was also a crafty player, and while she may not have had the results on clay of her opponent, she had beaten No2 seed Paula Badosa in straight sets and got the better of the young Canadian prodigy Leylah Fernandez.
Swiatek awaited the winner, of course, and had already beaten Kasatkina three times this year—and with relative ease. However, Jabeur had a winning record over the champion, beating Swiatek twice last year. And that balance of power could make all the difference.
Jabeur raced to a break, to love, only to be broken back in similar style. Again, the two exchanged breaks, and although Jabeur edged another break, she had to fend off another break-back chance to hold, 6-4.
It was swift tennis, with lots of rally-shortening drops, slices, and outright winners, but in the second set, too many errors from Jabeur gave Kasatkina the quick break, 3-0, and then another, before the Russian went on to serve it out, 6-1.
In the decider, Kasatkina showed her nerves first, and the experience and run of success kept Jabeur focused. The fourth game felt pivotal, with the Russian staving off four break points to hold. And yet at the next time of asking, Jabeur did break, 4-2, only to hand the break straight back.
The Tunisian was looking tired, and the Russian broke to serve out the match. But in this seesawing contest, Jabeur found a little extra to level at 5-5, and pulled out some of her best shots to break for the match, 7-5—appropriately enough, with a drop-shot winner.
So she takes her 11th straight win into another WTA1000 final, for another throw of the dice against Swiatek: Both women certainly have ‘that winning feeling’.