Saturday's Roland Garros final pits reigning Australian Open champion and World No.6 Sofia Kenin against 19-year-old Polish phenom and World No.54 Iga Swiatek, with both women vying for their first French Open titles.
Here are the four questions we'll have on our mind when they step out onto Court Philippe Chatrier to battle it out for the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
How will Sofia Kenin handle the pressure of being the favorite?
For Kenin, Saturday represents an opportunity to achieve a milestone oft-reserved for the greats. She could become the first American woman since Serena Williams to win two majors in a single season and the first woman aged 21-and-under to win two majors in a year since 2003, when Serena and Justine Henin split the four Slams. Kenin can also cement her status among the American champions, joining Nancy Richey, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati, and Serena Williams as the 7th American woman to lift the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.
But if you know Sofia Kenin, you know that all these accolades and milestones remain a distant second to her primary reason for playing professional tennis: winning. Bait the 21-year-old with a question that would compel most top players to expound on the poetic struggles and triumphs of sports as a window to the human condition and Kenin remains undeterred.
Q. If you could step back and just look at our sport in general, if you had to put it into one word or phrase, what is it that you love the most about the sport of tennis?
SOFIA KENIN: Winning, definitely. That's my answer. I mean, there are so many other words I can think of, but, yeah, winning is definitely the one. It's something that I really love, and I love winning more than anything, so, yeah, winning.
Understood? No? Well here she is one more time, louder, for the people in the back.
"You really got to first of all, love the game, you got to love the competition, you got to love to compete," Kenin said after her strong semifinal win over Petra Kvitova. "You have to have that feist in you.
"Like I said in my previous press conferences, losing I really hate and I love winning. I try to do everything I can to win."
Kenin knows that full-throated desire to win has unraveled her in the past, but seeing her learn to control it has been the key to her future. Watching Kenin scrap out wins in Paris, where she has gone three sets in four of her six matches, is like watching a raw nerve yearning for a salve. Kenin wears her heart on her sleeve and somewhere along the line, sports fans have been trained to see this as a weakness.
But Kenin has proven time and again that her resolve is unquestionable. There was the famous fifth game in the Australian Open final, which saw her fall into a 2-2, 0-40 hole only to strike five consecutive winners to hold. Any thoughts of a post-Slam slump were alleviated with a title run in Lyon before the tour shutdown. Then, playing on home soil in her first 1st major since Melbourne, Kenin managed the pressure with a solid run to the Round of 16.
Here in Paris, Kenin is into the Roland Garros final without having made a single clay-court quarterfinal before this week. She had never won a set against Danielle Collins, who she defeated in three sets in the quarterfinals. She was 0-2 against Petra Kvitova, yet she managed the wind, the pressure, and one of the most dangerous players in the game to win in two tight sets after saving 10 of 12 break points.
Doubt Sofia Kenin at your peril. She's earned that reputation.
"I feel like after Australia people started to know me," Kenin said. "I felt a little more pressure from the outside. Keeping this level and playing some great tennis now is really special. I feel like people are looking up to me.
"I feel like people definitely respect me and I'm happy. It's not easy to get respect. It's really easy to lose it. Like I said, people respect me. I'm going to keep it that way."
Has experience become overrated in Slam finals?
When Kenin takes on Swiatek on Saturday, it will be the first Slam final between two players aged 21-and-under since the 2008 Australian Open (Sharapova d. Ivanovic) and the first at Roland Garros since 2003 (Henin d. Clijsters). The teen has made history with her bulldozing run to her maiden Slam final, becoming the first Polish woman to make the Roland Garros final in the Open Era. She has done so by dropping just 23 games, and breaking serve in 32 of 46 return games, an astounding 69.6% break rate against a field of opponents that include 2019 finalist Marketa Vondrousova, top seed Simona Halep, 2014 finalist Eugenie Bouchard, Hsieh Su-Wei, Martina Trevisan, and Nadia Podoroska.
"Of course, she's playing some great tennis, having great results," Kenin said. "Petra also had not lost a set here. I mean, that obviously doesn't mean anything if I'm playing well.
"I'm hoping that with my experience from Melbourne, it will help me for Saturday's final."
How much will experience come into play on Saturday? The recent trend of major champions seems to tilt in favor of the younger, less experienced underdogs. Kenin upended two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza in Melbourne in January, Naomi Osaka got the better of Victoria Azarenka at the US Open, Bianca Andreescu and Simona Halep defeated Serena Williams last season, and Osaka defeated Kvitova at the 2019 Australian Open.
"I'm definitely going to feel a bit nervous coming into the final," Kenin said. "I've been there, done that. I know what the emotions are getting into your first Grand Slam final. I'm hoping she's going to be a little bit nervous."
Swiatek now sits one win away from becoming Poland's first major champion and could become the 1st woman to win Roland Garros without losing a set since Justine Henin in 2007.
All for a player who was playing in the junior event in Paris just two years ago - she lifted the doubles title with Caty McNally - and made her Top 100 debut last summer.
"I feel like I've been so efficient and so focused for whole matches that I put a lot of pressure on my opponents," Swiatek said. "I'm not even nervous in second sets because I know it's going to probably go my way.
"It's going to be different in a final because I'm going to play much more experienced players. I think it's going to be a tough match no matter who I'm going to play against.
"I will need to be on a different level, the higher level, even though I'm winning easily right now."
Will Swiatek's second serve efficiency prove the difference?
Both women will be looking to play their brands of aggressive baseline tennis. Swiatek comes in having hit 150 winners to 110 unforced errors, while Kenin's more arduous math has required 194 winners to 169 unforced errors. Swiatek's numbers prove what we have seen with our own eyes over the fortnight, that she is thoroughly comfortable off both the forehand and backhand. She has hit 60 forehand winners and 61 backhand winners, and when it comes to unforced errors the forehand has leaked 54 to 47 on the backhand.
The numbers are more imbalanced for Kenin, whose backhand remains a big weapon, while her forehand can break down. Kenin has hit 99 backhand winners and 82 forehand winners, but she has misfired 80 unforced errors off the forehand compared to 66 on the backhand.
Where Swiatek could put the match on her racquet is on her serve. She has been broken just nine times over six matches compared to 18 breaks for Kenin, and while their first serve winning percentages are similar (67% vs. 66%), Swiatek is winning 63% of her second serve points compared to Kenin's 46%. The American has also been more prone to double-faults, striking 21 to Swiatek's 6. The teenager possesses a quality kick serve that she has used with great effect on second serve to open up the court and gain an immediate advantage. To win this match, Kenin will have to do something one has been able to do against Swiatek in Paris: hold serve more than 3 times in a match.
But Swiatek has not faced a player with Kenin's power off the return and from the baseline since the third round, where she faced down Eugenie Bouchard. Since then, Swiatek has dominated Halep, Trevisan, and Podoroska. Kenin hits a bigger ball and will look to go toe-to-toe with Swiatek's heavy-hitting. The American was able to withstand the offensive pressure from Kvitova in her last match and if she applies the same mindset in the final, she could pressure Swiatek into errors.
When Swiatek's coach Piotr Sierzputowski was asked what Swiatek's best qualities were as a player, he honed in on her ability to win.
"I have a lot of things to work with her on the technical side and tactical side, we have a lot of space to improve," said Sierzputowski, who has worked with Swiatek since she was 15-years-old. "But overall it doesn't even matter. When she comes to the court she puts the ball right in the place where she wants.
"This is the best quality of Iga for me. Like, she can serve big, okay, but sometimes you serve better, sometimes you serve let's say not really good. Then you play better forehand, better backhand. It doesn't really matter if you are able to put the ball where you want. You can play it looking weird but you make it.
"Iga is the kind of person, for her it doesn't matter if technically it was right now at the match. It's good, because she's not thinking about small technical stuff. She's more focused on the real basics like getting low on the legs, going forward, like really easy technical simple stuff so she can focus on match, on the competition.
"She's a beast of the competition I would call her. She loves to compete, she never likes to practice. It's boring for her. But when it comes to the matches, she's there."
Is Swiatek ready for another graduation day?
The Polish teenager has been very open throughout her young career about her work with sports psychologists. A learned and intelligent personality with a seemingly insatiably curious mind, Swiatek has worked with her current psychologist, Daria Abramowicz, to work through how to manage the pressure and nerves so that she can just play her tennis.
Earlier in the tournament, Swiatek said she is happy she did not make a major final last year because she simply would not have been able to handle the pressure. She needed time to grow up, mature, and truly believe that she belonged at this level.
After making her second Round of 16 at a Slam at the Australian Open in January, Swiatek was asked what her success at the majors proved about her qualities as a player.
"I feel like I really belong here," Swiatek said. "First year on tour I wasn't so confident. Right now I feel I can do it and that I have everything that I need to play against the best players. If I keep working hard, who knows what’s going to happen."
Sierzputowski said he saw a change in Swiatek during the pre-season as well, but there was still one last piece that had to be resolved: high school. Swiatek finally finished her studies in during the lockdown in May and doing so has allowed her to go all-in on her tennis career.
"I was calling her semi-pro/semi-amateur in the past, because she was at school, she was studying like a regular person. Of course she was abroad a lot of time, but still she was going to school, she was taking her exams. So it was like I always was in the second part of her life. The tennis wasn't the biggest part of her life.
"So it was always difficult. Imagine that I had to schedule practice in the morning at 7 because she had to go to the school. She's coming to the practice tired and I'm asking, Why are you tired? Did you sleep well? No, I was studying in the night."
Entering Roland Garros, Swiatek had just 36 WTA main draw matches under her belt, all played within the last 21 months. 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu had a similar resume heading into New York last year, but the Canadian had proven herself to be tournament-tough earlier in the season with wins in Indian Wells and Toronto and racking up a slew of Top 10 wins.
For Swiatek, Roland Garros has been a major leap forward. She has tallied her first Top 5 win, 1st Slam quarterfinal, 1st Slam quarterfinal, and now 1st Slam final. On Saturday, she will be looking to do what Jelena Ostapenko did three years ago in Paris and count her maiden major as her first career WTA title.
If Swiatek didn't think she was ready 12 months ago, what about now?
"I feel like I'm ready," Swiatek said. "I also feel like I don't have to win. I'm pretty okay with both scenarios. Of course it's going to be sad because I would be so close if I'm going to lose.
"I'm just going to focus like it's another match. I feel like the pressure isn't on me. Right now I'm just enjoying that I have [had] a great run in singles. I think if I'm going to win, it's going to be crazy and super overwhelming for me.
"But as I said yesterday, even though there's chaos around me, when I'm coming on court, I feel like my mind is really clear. I can just focus on playing, going back to basics.
"Yeah, I'm going to be okay no matter what."