The champion is gone and, along with her, the last pillar of stability in the French Open women’s draw. Iga Swiatek was defeated 6-4, 6-4 after a supreme and courageous performance by Maria Sakkari of Greece. Swiatek’s departure means this year’s Roland Garros will see four Grand Slam semi-finalists for the first time, all battling for an inaugural main title, with more tense and exciting uncertainty to come.
For four successful rounds, Swiatek had handled her title defense with class, beating numerous energetic opponents without conceding a set, only bolstering her presence as the tournament favorite as other top players fell. But when the fall came for the Pole, it was a logical result.
Sakkari, the 17th seed, has been one of the most improved players on the women’s circuit. Together with his young English coach, Tom Hill, he has transformed his serve from an average delivery to one of the best in the world. His confidence has been slow to grow to the point where he felt he could compete for the biggest titles. As he has established himself within the top 20, the remaining question was whether he really had the nerve to take the next step.
Has taken several this week. For fleeting moments at the start of the match, the weight of the occasion favored the defending champion. But with the score at 4-4, Swiatek’s right hand collapsed under relentless pressure from Sakkari. The first set culminated in a tense and difficult final showdown with Sakkari’s serve. The Greek saved a break point with a brilliant second serve at 99 mph. After a long game of two, Sakkari closed the set with a winning backhand down the line.
Momentum continued to favor Sakkari in the second set, while Swiatek’s physical problems with her left thigh eventually led to her taking a doctor timeout at 6-4, 2-0. Sakkari missed an opportunity for a double break when he led 3-1 15-40 on Swiatek’s serve. He had to wait many minutes during the medical wait time which could have destroyed his momentum. Sakkari then had to serve the match against an opponent who was clearly ready to fight.
He handled everything with consummate professionalism. Sakkari took a 40-0 lead at 6-4, 5-4 behind a drop-shot winner, an ace and a forehand winner, taking the racket out of Swiatek’s hands. After being dragged from 40-0 to 40-30, she threw a 99 mph second serve, which did not return. With it, he achieved the greatest victory of his life.
“I really enjoyed today,” Sakkari said. “Before going into the game, I sat alone and talked to myself. I said, ‘You know what? It is a very important game. But enjoy it. This is one of the best stadiums in the world, so I had to do it. “
Sakkari, the highest-ranked player remaining in the draw, will face Barbora Krejcikova for a spot in the final after the Czech defeated Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3 in the previous quarterfinals. Krejcikova saved five set points in a first set that she never really led until she won it, eclipsing four of those set points with bold and definitive groundstrokes.
Krejcikova’s story is unique, even in a sport with such a wide variety of paths to the top. A former doubles number one and two-time slam champion, she has found success in singles in the complete opposite order from most. She is also a former protégé of the late Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon women’s singles champion, who is always on his mind. “I always think of her,” he said. “Every time I go to the court, I leave the court, I always think about it. I always wonder what he would say to me after a race like this, all these winning games and all that. I’m really sad, I can’t hear her and she can’t say anything. “
Despite such great frustration that he even gutted his racket in the second set when the match got away from him, the 17-year-old Gauff came out of his first Grand Slam quarter-final on a positive note. “Obviously I’m disappointed that I couldn’t close the first set,” she said. “To be honest, it’s in the past, it’s already happened. After the match, Enzo, my hitting partner, told me that this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism