Iga Swiatek rallies to beat Naomi Osaka in Roland Garros thriller | Tennis News - Hindustan Times
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Iga Swiatek rallies to beat Naomi Osaka in Roland Garros thriller

ByRutvick Mehta
May 30, 2024 12:47 AM IST

World No.1 Iga Swiatek marches into the third round, keeping her quest for a fourth French Open title alive after a three-set win over the former world No.1

Naomi Osaka said she watched a lot of Iga Swiatek playing tennis while she was pregnant. In her second Grand Slam since becoming a mother, Osaka turned up to almost knock Swiatek out of a tournament.

Swiatek's mind, often her own enemy in high-pressure moments, stayed her friend this time(AFP)
Swiatek's mind, often her own enemy in high-pressure moments, stayed her friend this time(AFP)

Not just from any tournament. From the French Open, on the clay courts of which Swiatek bulldozed her way to the title over the last couple of years. With the current world No.1 up against the former world No.1 and four-time Slam winner on a comeback trail

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in the second round this year, it was meant to be tricky. Osaka ensured it was just that. Swiatek was made to thwart a set point in the first set, a rampaging opponent in the second and a match point in the third before coming out a 7-6(1), 1-6, 7-5 winner.

Swiatek's mind, often her own enemy in high-pressure moments, stayed her friend this time, seizing on to her nervy opponent’s little mental dip within touching distance of the finish line. It was Swiatek instead who crossed it, in what will be one of her more cherished career victories.

Back to competing on the tour after being away for a large part of the last couple of years owing to mental health issues and her pregnancy, it was also by far Osaka’s best outing. She crashed out in the first round of this year's Australian Open and did not go beyond a quarter-final in seven tournaments thereafter coming into this French Open. Swiatek, the champion of Madrid and Rome, was unbeaten in 13 matches.

Osaka, a two-time Australian and US Open champion, isn't a natural on clay — she has never made it beyond the third round in Paris — but it hardly felt that way on Wednesday. She held break point opportunities in the second game but instead saw her serve go down the following game as Swiatek went 3-1 up.

Osaka got back level in the eighth game after a double fault by the Pole that extracted a loud “c’mon”. That was a gift from Swiatek but Osaka did dictate from her racquet. Her baseline strokes had depth — she hit 17 winners to Swiatek’s 18 in the first set — and serves the sting while consistently attacking Swiatek’s second serves stationed way inside the baseline. The world No.1 had to dig deep in saving a set point before freeing up in the tiebreaker, where she bossed and restored order.

Such one-sided tiebreakers after a close set can often signal the end of an underdog’s fight. Osaka was an underdog alright but of a champion kind. And she came out like one in the second set, getting the early break and then another one with a cracking inside-out forehand return winner pouncing on the second serve. Such was Osaka’s hold in that set that she won 9 out of 10 points through the first two-and-a-half games and fired 10 winners to Swiatek’s three through it all.

Only twice in her class-stamping last two French Open editions had Swiatek been taken to a third set, neither of them in the first week. This was new for the Pole, and called for a response. She did respond by creating a couple of break chances in the first game of the decider only for Osaka to save both, the second with an ace. Swiatek’s serve in contrast was constantly being peppered and Osaka pierced it immediately, earning the break with a terrific backhand crosscourt winner. Osaka then recovered from 0-40 down to hold, fending off five break points and proving the difference a strong serve can make.

However, serving for the match, Osaka cracked, seeing a match point come and go even as Swiatek held firm mentally and broke in. Her shots began to breathe fire again while Osaka's mind began to falter. A double fault in the next game gave Swiatek the decisive break, which was enough to shut the door on the Osaka test.

Alcaraz, Djokovic made to work

Earlier, Carlos Alcaraz had more trouble than he would’ve liked in getting past Jesper De Jong, a Dutch qualifier ranked 176th in the world. The world No. 3 Spaniard dropped the third set — losing his serve twice in it — and was broken twice again early in the fourth before picking himself up just in time for a 6-3, 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 second round victory.

The two-time Grand Slam champion, who has had issues with his right forearm leading into this French Open, was far from his best against a player competing in just his second main draw in a major.

World No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who has come into this French Open with doubts of his own, had a straight-sets win over Pierre-Hugues Herbert that wasn't quite as straightforward. Against the French wild card, the Serb was made to work in Tuesday’s night session for his 6-4, 7-6(3), 6-4 victory.

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