The season’s first WTA 1000, the Qatar TotalEnergies Open, has more than lived up to its billing with a slew of terrific players dispatched to the sidelines in advance of Saturday’s final.
Swiatek’s continuing evolution could be seen in the tears she shed after ending a 0-for-3 career start against Sakkari.
“I don’t know how that happened,” the 20-year-old said in her on-court interview, voice quavering. “I’ve been doing so much work to play well in those matches like that. I’m so happy I made it through.”
This is a stellar matchup, featuring the WTA’s longest current win streak (nine straight matches by Kontaveit) and some big-tournament play from Swiatek – the only player to reach the semifinals at the two most important events of 2022 so far.
“We all tend to be scared of something – I’m not sure what,” Swiatek said. “We all want to win so bad, sometimes it’s really stressful. This whole tournament showed me that if I’m going to be fearless, I can play [as well as] I want.
“I think like most of the matches we played against each other were over two and one-half hours,” Swiatek said of Kontaveit. “Get some snacks, bring popcorn. I think it's going to be a nice match. Looking forward to it.”
So are we.
The Case for Kontaveit
The head-to-head suggests a tight match, Courtney, but I’ll take Kontaveit in this one. Going back to last summer, Kontaveit has the edge in sheer momentum.
Heading into their semifinal match, Kontaveit’s recent success was obscured by a blizzard of gaudy numbers compiled by Ostapenko. The 2017 French Open champion, in the midst of a career-best nine straight match wins, had beaten six different Grand Slam champions in a span of nine days. Ostapenko began the year with a 0-3 mark against top-10 players and now, in a dazzling 10-day run, she could make it 4-0 with a victory over Kontaveit.
But the early, aggressive ground strokes that had obliterated Barbora Krejcikova and Garbiñe Muguruza in the past two rounds (they won a total of six games in four sets), were missing against Kontaveit. Scrambling a bit, but defending brilliantly, Kontaveit forced Ostapenko to play a longer game. The result was 39 unforced errors – matching Ostapenko’s total of winners versus Muguruza.
In retrospect, this shouldn’t have been a great surprise. Ostapenko’s streak began after losing in the St. Petersburg semifinal – to Kontaveit. And while she was fortunate when her shot ticked the top of the net and dribbled over and in, narrowly averting a 5-all second set, Kontaveit was solid at the end, placing some exquisite second serves.
You want some flashy numbers? Kontaveit now has crafted nine consecutive wins and – wait for it – going back to the beginning of the 2021 season has more WTA victories, 60, than anyone; it isn’t really close because she’s six ahead of Ons Jabeur. You could win a few trivia points with that cold, hard fact.
Who has come further, faster than the 26-year-old Estonian? She was ranked No.30 last August and now she’ll make her Top 5 debut on Monday. In a decade as a professional, she had won only a single title before last year. Now, she’s eying her sixth tournament win in seven months. In 2021, Kontaveit scored 39 hard-court match wins – better than all of her WTA peers, No.1 Ash Barty included.
Here’s another fairly staggering statistic: Kontaveit has reached seven finals in the past dozen events she has played.
“I’m very happy that we managed to keep this consistent level up,” she said in her on-court interview after beating Ostapenko. “Really happy to be doing well at these big tournaments, playing against the best players in the world, having a good time on court and I think that’s the thing I’m most happy about.”
The head-to-head is 2-all and, admittedly, Swiatek won the past two, in the third round of last year’s majors in Paris and New York. But three of their 10 sets have been decided in tiebreakers and another three have seen a margin of two games.
It says here Kontaveit will find a way to win, just like she did against Ostapenko. - Greg Garber
The Case for Swiatek
There's no denying the numbers behind Kontaveit's incredible rise over the last seven months and you've laid them out perfectly, Greg. But Swiatek has made impressive improvements to her hard-court game over that span as well. Given her comfort on clay and her wins at Roland Garros and Rome, it has been tempting to downplay her prowess away from the dirt.
"I wanted always to be solid and be the kind of clay-court player who is going to play topspin and stay back, but really, right now tennis is getting faster and faster," Swiatek said. "Players who are attacking and leading are winning. I wanted to also learn how to do that. They convinced me basically to do that, because at first I had that attitude that, Hey, I'm happy with my solid game. But this is actually making my matches easier, so I don't know why I was so stubborn."
Under new coach Tomasz Witkorowski, Swiatek has flourished in the first two months. She started the year with a semifinal run in Adelaide, where she lost to Barty. Then came her revelatory run to her first Slam semifinal on a hard court at the Australian Open. Equally as important as the result, Swiatek did it by battling her way through matches.
Her back-to-back comeback wins over Sorana Cirstea and Kaia Kanepi in Melbourne showed a young player who had come to embrace the battle, who was willing to scrap when she did not have her A-game, and one who did not panic or feel sorry for herself when she was getting outplayed.
That same mentality has been on full display this week in Doha and it's what's made this improved version of Swiatek look particularly dangerous. She never panicked when Viktorija Golubic took her to a decider in her opening match, which she won 6-2, 3-6, 6-2. After dominating top seed Aryna Sabalenka in the first set of their quarterfinal, Swiatek found herself down 0-3 in the second. She proceeded to dig in and overpower Sabalenka, reeling off the next six games.
Against Sakkari, who had won all six sets the two ever played, Swiatek came back from a break down in both sets and closed out the straight-set win from 0-30 down in the final game. That is confident, clutch work from a player who, we have to remind ourselves, is still just 20-years-old.
"I don't know how it's going to be right now, because the last match I played against her was basically before she had that great streak at the end of last year," Swiatek said.
"I'll be ready for anything, honestly. Every match is a different story. I can use that as well when I have really bad head-to-head against a player, and I should also remember that when I won the last matches, because in tennis anything can happen. Anett showed she's really consistent and I really respect that, because how she played during the past few months it's been amazing."
Swiatek has won the last three finals she's contested, all straight sets. For the third time in her career, she's beaten two Top 10 players at a tournament. What happened the last two times this happened? She lifted the trophy, at 2020 Roland Garros and 2021 Rome. That's a pretty good omen if you ask me. - Courtney Nguyen