Just a few days into the season, and it’s sizzling – as in frying-pan-on-a-fire hot on the tennis court. On Thursday night, we already had an Ashleigh Barty-Sofia Kenin matchup at the Adelaide International. And an Iga Swiatek-Victoria Azarenka battle.
Now for the two winners, Barty and Swiatek, an early-season showdown between two of the brightest stars in the game.
Barty, of course, is the top-ranked player in the world. Swiatek is a former Grand Slam winner, who is still all of 20 years old.
The winner will advance to the Adelaide final and will take on either Elena Rybakina or Misaki Doi.
What to make of Barty and Swiatek? We break it down.
Key for Barty: Don't let Swiatek control the point
Barty and Swiatek are not only the last two champions in Adelaide, but both are Roland Garros champions and frequent doubles partners. Their only previous meeting between them came last year in Madrid, an entertaining 7-5, 6-4 win for Barty in the Round of 16.
"I enjoy [Swiatek's] company. I enjoy her team's company," Barty said after her dominant 6-3, 6-4 win over Sofia Kenin in the quarterfinals. "Playing her for the first time last year in Madrid was exciting for both of us."
There will be few secrets Saturday between the two when they take the court. They practiced together before the tournament in Adelaide, and Barty is well aware of the unique puzzle that Swiatek presents.
"The way she's aggressive on the ball, aggressive on the baseline, she moves exceptionally well, has a weight of shot that not many have," Barty said.
"I think the challenge is trying to not let her control the point too much out of the center of the court and keep her moving and try to bring it back to my weapons, if I can."
Barty's weapons were on full display against Kenin. The World No.1 laid down a marker, firing a career-high 17 aces and losing just one point behind her first serve. The performance came on the heels of a gritty win over Coco Gauff in the second round. Playing her first match since the US Open, Barty shook off her competitive rust to come back from a set and a break down to win 4-6, 7-5, 6-1.
The key for Barty will be her serve and finishing. Swiatek has had an outstanding week in Adelaide, covering the court well while dominating from the baseline. When Barty has the opportunity for, as she calls them, "cheapies," she needs to finish. That clinical finishing skill has wavered at times in her two matches, especially against Gauff. But if Barty is pumping in her serve and keeping Swiatek at bay on return, the scoreboard pressure could buckle the youngster.
"I think in the last few years I felt like I've always been able to serve well and control my service games," Barty said. "Ultimately that's all I'm trying to do, is bring the match back on my terms when I've got that first ball in the rally." -- Courtney Nguyen
Key for Swiatek: Returning Barty's serve
Swiatek and Barty have met only once, and that was in last year’s third round at Madrid, when Barty was a 7-5, 6-4 winner in a tight match. Eight months later, the circumstances are a lot different.
“These practices, our match in Madrid, it’s going to give me a lot of information,” Swiatek said after her win over Azarenka. “Yeah, I feel more confident just because I feel like I’m more settled on tour and I can actually compete on highest level against those players. In Madrid, for sure I was pretty nervous and not confident because of the altitude. Here I don’t have that factor.
“It’s always a little bit more pressure on her. Hopefully I’m going to be able to use that.”
Everything is still new to Swiatek, at 20 the youngest player in the WTA’s Top 10. She had lost her only match against Azarenka (in the third round of the 2020 US Open) and had no trouble evening the score. She broke the two-time Australian Open champion’s serve five times and was exceptional protecting her own second serve. That 0-1 head-to-head against Barty means nothing to her.
Momentum and history are behind Swiatek. She’s now won eight straight matches in Adelaide and had a streak of 15 straight sets before Azarenka took the second set from her. Swiatek won the title here last year, the second of her career after 2020 Roland Garros.
The challenge for Swiatek will be returning Barty’s serve, which she seems to have brought up to a fine boil. Against Kenin, Barty had 17 aces (and only two double faults) and won 31 of 32 first-serve points.
And so it’s the 2020 French Open champion against the 2019 winner, the 2021 Adelaide titlist opposite the 2020 winner.
Swiatek is pleased that her aggressive tactics are working so well in 2022. This is what Barty will have to contend with:
“I want to be the first one to attack and to play that faster ball that’s going to give me opportunity to go forward,” Swiatek said. “That was my third match where I actually could show what I practiced during preseason. That’s really satisfying because I had this problem last year where I was practicing really great and I felt like I could do more on matches.
“This time it’s different.” -- Greg Garber