As little as a few fleeting weeks ago, while Ash Barty was still dominating all opponents in her path, the gap between the world number one and the rest of the top players seemed to be as vast as a canyon. Beneath her, so little separated the rest, and in her absence anyone could beat anyone else on any given day.
Yet in no time at all, the landscape of women’s tennis has shifted due to one player alone: Iga Swiatek has established herself as the transcendent figure in the sport. Two days before she officially becomes the new world number one, Swiatek took another enormous step forward in her young career with one of her biggest wins yet, dismantling four-times grand slam champion Naomi Osaka 6-4, 6-0 to win the Miami Open.
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Having started the season still just working towards producing her best level on hard courts, 20 year-old Swiatek’s progress has accelerated at an astonishing rate. She has now established a 17-match winning streak, all on this surface, becoming just the fourth woman in history to clinch the Indian Wells and Miami ‘Sunshine Double’. She is also the first player to win the first three WTA 1000 events of the year.
This carried significance beyond the personal triumphs of Osaka and Swiatek. At Toronto in 2019, Osaka and an 18 year-old Swiatek faced off in a match so wildly entertaining and high quality that it sparked a friendship between them. It became clear that this was potentially an era-defining rivalry, and Miami marked their first meeting since, this time on equal terms as grand slam champions.
Not only has Swiatek improved since then and even when won the French Open aged 19 in 2020, she is also utterly vicious in the biggest matches. In her five grand slam and WTA 1000 finals, no player has won more than five games against her.
While Osaka was able to match her intensity at the beginning, the completeness of Swiatek’s game was too overwhelming. Swiatek has established herself as one of the best in the world both defensively and offensively. She countered Osaka’s first strike with her athleticism and intelligence, she smothered Osaka’s second serve with her exceptional return and also comfortably controlled the baseline, out-hitting Osaka off both groundstrokes by the end. Swiatek has so many options, and she is steadily learning how to use them.
Ten days ago, Swiatek was relaxing in bed when a member of the team knocked on her hotel room door to inform her of Barty’s retirement and the possibility that she could be world number one. With all of that extra pressure on her shoulders, Swiatek responded by obliterating Viktorija Golubic 6-2, 6-0 to clinch the No 1 spot and she powered on to win the tournament without dropping a set. The most ominous part of this breakthrough is what is to come: the clay season, her best surface, is next.
Even after a defeat that ended so bluntly, this has been an excellent tournament for Osaka, too. Over the past year, she has dealt with her mental health struggles in the public eye and, having played so few tournaments since winning the Australian Open last year, Osaka fell as low as 85th in the rankings in February.
She has explained that she began speaking with a therapist after being heckled in Indian Wells last month and her positive frame of mind in Miami has yielded some of her best tennis in years. With so few events under her belt, the level set by Swiatek should only serve as inspiration for her to meet this challenge in their future encounters. The hope is that there will be more to come.
Meanwhile, the men’s No 2 Daniil Medvedev has announced that he will be out for one or two months after undergoing a “small procedure” due to playing with a hernia for some time. The surgery puts Medvedev’s presence at the French Open in doubt, which begins at the end of next month.
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