Six short years ago Iga Swiatek arrived on the clay courts of Budapest for the Junior Fed Cup and in her first match she stared down the court at a Canadian opponent called Bianca Andreescu. As she won in three tough sets it would be one of the formative results of Swiatek’s junior career, a win that imbued her with the belief that she could take on players from the bigger, more famous tennis nations. She finished the week by leading Poland to the title.
It has been a long journey for both players since and in the quarter-finals of the Italian Open their paths finally crossed in singles competition for a second time, now as grand slam champions who have watched each other from afar with immense mutual respect. This match-up may one day stand as a defining rivalry of the era but for now this is Swiatek’s time. After a bruising opening set she efficiently separated herself as she breezed to a remarkable 26th consecutive victory, defeating Andreescu 7-6 (2), 6-0.
“I feel like every match I’m playing better and better,” Swiatek said. “Even though the first set was pretty tight, I had some ups and downs, I feel like I could play well in important moments and break back any time.”
The opening set was tense, filled with high-octane exchanges as both players tried to smother the other’s second serve while looking to control the baseline. From early on Swiatek challenged Andreescu to keep up with her intensity, athleticism and ball-striking. She established a 5-3 lead thanks to her superior movement, her backhand reeling off down-the-line winners and by cleaning up all short balls.
Although still adjusting to such intensity so soon into her return, Andreescu slowly grew into the match and she fought desperately. She played her clearest spell of attacking tennis with her back to the wall, breaking Swiatek as she served for the set and then holding a break point at 5-5.
But Swiatek’s confidence is stratospheric and she was present for all of the big points, arresting Andreescu’s momentum and then playing a flawless tie-break. As in so many of her recent matches Swiatek opened her shoulders and relaxed in the second set, the match swiftly falling away like so many of the 25 before them.
With 26 consecutive wins, this remarkable run now moves Swiatek level with Victoria Azarenka’s 2012 winning streak and in the 21st century only the three greatest players of this period have compiled more wins: Venus Williams (35), Serena Williams (34) and Justine Henin (32). Swiatek has also won 40 of her last 41 sets and this year alone she has inflicted 13 bagel (6-0) sets on her opponents.
“I needed time to learn how to do that properly, how to use the streak or ranking to put pressure on my opponents,” said Swiatek, who plays Aryna Sabalenka next. “I feel like I’ve done that pretty well last season and this season at the beginning, just learning how to use it in a positive way. Last year, when I had better ranking, it felt like it’s something that’s pressuring me down. This time it’s totallydifferent.”
Even though Andreescu was unable to keep up, this has been another extremely positive week as she recovers her level and ranking after a six-month mental-health layoff. She has put herself in a good position for a deep run in Paris with the right draw and anticipation for the next meeting between herself and Swiatek has only grown.In the men’s draw Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Jannik Sinner 7-6 (5), 6-2 to set up another meeting with his bitter rival Alexander Zverev, their third consecutive Masters 1000 semi-final match of the clay season.
“For me, I have respect for him,” Tsitsipas said. “I don’t know if I’ve shown it or not but I do have respect for what he has achieved in the sport so far. Every time I go out there to play him, I really want to bring the best out of my game and really show what I’m capable of in terms of my tennis, handling the difficult situations.”
Late on Friday night Novak Djokovic continued to build his form in time for the French Open as he overcame spirited fightbacks from the 8th seed, Felix Auger-Aliassime, in both sets, winning 7-5, 7-6 (1) to reach the semi-final here. He will face Casper Ruud, the fifth seed, who edged past Denis Shapovalov 7-6 (7), 7-5.
By reaching the semi-final in Rome, Djokovic has secured his No 1 ranking and top seeding at the French Open, which begins next Sunday.