Rome Open 2022: Swiatek digs deep to beat Azarenka for 25th straight match-win

World No1 Swiatek faces fellow teenage Major champion Andreescu in quarters

Iga Swiatek
Iga Swiatek (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

It was an extraordinary first set of tennis which lasted 80 minutes for just 10 games, as the world No1 and defending champion, Iga Swiatek came up against former Rome runner-up and world No1 Victoria Azarenka.

The 20-year-old Pole’s season was turning into a record-breaker on many fronts. A French Open champion as a teenager, and then Rome champion too before turning 20 last year, Swiatek was clearly more than comfortable on the clay.

Yet since the start of 2022, ranked No9, she had won a tour-leading 33 matches, four titles—three of them at the elite 1,000 level—and was on a 24-match winning streak, the longest since Serena Wiliams won 27 straight in 2015. And it had been almost entirely on hard courts except for the four that sealed the WTA500 in Stuttgart.

And as was the case in her sweep to the Roland Garros title, where not a set was dropped, not a tie-break played, no more than five games conceded in any set—it was the style of the Pole’s winning that impressed just as much. Already in 2022, she had won a tour-leading twelve 6-0 sets, and notched up 23 match-wins in straight sets.

She began the defence of her Rome title, having bypassed Madrid to rehab a sore shoulder, with yet another straightforward win, 6-3, 6-0, over Elena-Gabriela Ruse, but now faced former No1 and former Rome finalist, Azarenka, in an attempt to extend that winning streak.

But Azarenka, an Australian champion and with 21 career titles to her name, is a gritty, experienced and determined player, and took Swiatek to three sets and two hours right at the start of the year in Adelaide.

And the Belarusian was all intent and aggression in the Foro Italico’s showpiece Court Centrale on a baking hot and breezy afternoon.

The first game alone was 15 points long, and Azarenka broke at the fourth attempt. After holding, she then broke again, this time in a 13-point game. Swiatek was struggling to find her range with her increasingly aggressive forehand, and made too many errors.

At last, she had something to get her teeth into, a quick break back in the fourth game, followed by yet another gruelling service game—but this time surviving a break point.

At last she had pulled level, 3-3, yet still Azarenka’s power baseline play, plying the corners with flat penetration, tested the champion—19 points, seven deuces, three break points, and she survived. And the frustration was starting to eat away at Azarenka: missed chances, noisy fans, movement in the stands—this colosseum of a court had everything.

Time for more frustration, too, as Swiatek enjoyed a welcome quick break to take a decisive lead, 5-3, but of course, this was still far from done. Four set points went begging and Azarenka converted her first break chance, 5-4.

But the 32-year-old, seeded 16, and without a really strong run since reaching the final of Indian Wells last October, could not hold her serve—she was guilty of five double faults in the set—and Swiatek broke to take it, 6-4, after a leg-busting hour and 20 minutes.

If the rest of the match kept this up, it would become a record-maker, but the young Pole was improving all the time, working her tactics better, finding the range with her forehand, improving her serving stats.

Even so, Azarenka had plenty of fight—at least for a few games. In a long opening service game by the Pole, the Belarusian broke at the third attempt, only to be broken straight back. Was this going to unfold like the first set?

The answer was swift and decisive. Swiatek did not face another break point, while Azarenka’s serve began to dip below 50 percent, and she was wrongfooted time and again by the Polish backhands down the line.

Swiatek broke for 3-1, and again for 5-1, and served it out to love, 6-1, after almost two hours.

The No1 had made 38 errors, but had shown all the focus and maturity that has underpinned her ever-evolving tennis. Not a sign of panic in those early games, and no sign of wilting after such a gruelling first set, she slotted 34 winners past Azarenka to score her 25th straight win.

And that set up another mouth-watering contest with Bianca Andreescu, who also became a Major champion as a teenager, at the US Open in 2019. In that breakout year, the Canadian began the season ranked 152, won Indian Wells, Toronto and the US Open to end the year as No4 at the WTA Finals.

She bypassed the entire 2020 ‘Covid’ season, bounced back in 2021 to make the final of the Miami 1000, but continued to struggle with a knee injury, picked up the Covid virus, and went on to prioritise her mental health.

Now 21, the young Canadian returned to action in Stuttgart last month after a six-month break, and quickly began to make an impression again. In Madrid, she reached the third round with victory over the No8 ranked Danielle Collins, and in her Rome debut, was dominating Emma Raducanu when the Briton was forced to retire in the second set.

Now, three events into her comeback, she beat last year’s Rome semi-finalist Petra Martic, 6-4, 6-4, to reach her first 1000 quarter-final in 15 months—and what a quarter-final it promises to be.

Also in the top half, No3 seed Aryna Sabalenka beat No13 seed and Madrid runner-up, Jessica Pegula, 6-1, 6-4, to reach the Rome quarters for the first time.

In the bottom half, Swiss Jil Teichmann continued her strong form from Madrid, where she reached the semis. She beat Elena Rybakina 6-7(3), 6-3, 7-5, and will next face either No2 seed Paula Badosa or Daria Kasatkina.

Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Man United boss Erik ten Hag urged to sign Chelsea FC star this summer
Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Journalist: Man United 'trying everything' to sign Frenkie de Jong from FC Barcelona
Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Man United considering move to sign Sven Botman from Lille - report
Gossip
Robert Lewandowski
Chelsea FC keen on signing quality Poland star this summer – report
Gossip
Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp replies when asked if Liverpool FC want to sign Kylian Mbappe
Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Man United boss Erik ten Hag urged to sign Chelsea FC star this summer
Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Journalist: Man United 'trying everything' to sign Frenkie de Jong from FC Barcelona
Gossip
Erik ten Hag
Man United considering move to sign Sven Botman from Lille - report
Gossip
Robert Lewandowski
Chelsea FC keen on signing quality Poland star this summer – report
Gossip
Jurgen Klopp
Jurgen Klopp replies when asked if Liverpool FC want to sign Kylian Mbappe
Slideshow
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature
Top 50 Muslim footballers: Arsenal, Chelsea FC, Liverpool FC and Man United stars feature