Eighteen months ago, she was an unseeded 19-year-old champion at Roland Garros. Blossoming in a breathtaking, time-lapse photography kind of way.
Facing four-time major champion Naomi Osaka on Saturday in the Miami Open final, Iga Swiatek – still only 20 – played older and wiser, winning 6-4, 6-0. That final set was simply brutal – and oddly beautiful. For the first time, Osaka lost a Grand Slam or WTA 1000 final; Swiatek is now 5-0.
The very first game was a fleeting look at what this rivalry might offer going forward. There were four aces from Osaka, seven deuces and some spirited play from both sides. It required more than 10 minutes before Osaka finally prevailed.
Although the rest of the match was largely one-sided in favor of Swiatek, what we saw was a budding rivalry, one that could last for years.
With Ashleigh Barty stepping away from the game and without 40-somethings Serena and Venus Williams stepping onto the court this season, this is the matchup between two of the most recognizable names on tour. It would be surprising if Swiatek and Osaka didn’t meet many more times with at least as much at stake.
Osaka played only eight matches coming into Miami, and more reps will make her sharper. With her big-game mentality, It’s easy to forget that she is only 24 years old – an age when many players are still trying to find themselves.
There seems to be a mutual respect – and even fondness – between these two. And that's the kind of respectful rivalry that elevates the game.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” Osaka told reporters later. “The last time I played her, it wasn’t like this at all. I definitely learned a lot. She is definitely worthy of her title as No.1. I’m going to learn a lot from her, and watching this match back again.”
On Monday, Swiatek will rise to the summit.
“I’m pretty glad that we could play this match,” Swiatek said to Osaka during the trophy presentation. “I think it’s the start of a great rivalry.
“You are really an inspiration and the sport is better with you.”
Swiatek consistently diffused Osaka’s power. Osaka finished with seven aces – four in the furious first game alone – but was broken four times. Swiatek, playing with a pleasing guile and a subtlety, didn’t face a breakpoint.
Earlier in the tournament, Osaka was aggressive facing second serves, stepping well inside the baseline. It didn’t work against Swiatek, whose kick serve bounced up around Osaka’s shoulders even when she was four or five feet inside the baseline.
The laundry list of Swiatek's accomplishments, quite frankly, approaches surreal:
- In winning Doha, Indian Wells and Miami in succession, Swiatek is the first woman to ever win the year’s first three WTA 1000 events.
- She’s only the fourth woman to win Indian Wells and Miami back to back in the same season, the celebrated Sunshine Double, following Stefanie Graf (1994, 1996), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Victoria Azarenka (2016). She’s the youngest on that list, which is saying something.
- Swiatek has won a career-high 17 consecutive matches, including the last nine in straight sets. She’s 26-3 for the year and, don’t look now, but she’s heading into play on her favorite surface.
“It’s really exciting,” Swiatek said in press afterward. “I’m being compared to the players who are really my idols when I was younger — I wouldn’t even dream of being in that position. So I’m really satisfied and proud of myself.”
Considering how Indian Wells ended – tears following a second-round loss in which she was heckled – this was a hugely encouraging result for Osaka.
“I haven’t been in this position for a little minute,” she told the crowd at Hard Rock Stadium. “I know this isn’t the outcome you guys wanted, but I’m having a lot of fun up here.
“So I hope that I can keep working hard and get more opportunities to be in a situation like this.”
Fans of tennis are hoping right along with her. This was Osaka’s 11th career final and all of them have come on hard courts. In theory, her game should translate to clay and grass, but so far it hasn’t. Her win-loss percentage on hard courts is better than .700, but on the other two surfaces it hovers just over .500.
Osaka, who came into the final ranked No.77, will be at No.36 on Monday.
“Of course I really wanted to win here, but I think this is a step in a really good direction for me,” Osaka said. “Strangely enough, even though I didn’t win here, this is probably one of the most meaningful tournaments for me.
"What I’m going to take back is knowing even if I don’t play my best, as long as I fight as hard as I can, there’s still going to be opportunities to win the match. I think that’s a really positive sign.”
For Swiatek, it’s been all positives this year. She’s the first woman since Serena Williams to win 17 consecutive hard-court matches in a single year, going back to 2015. It’s been even longer since a player dropped only 26 games in Miami – 22 years, when Martina Hingis lost only 21 in her title run.
Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst and three-time major champion weighed in.
“How badly do they really want it? Iga showed us the last six weeks how much she wants to be at the top of women’s tennis.”
Even Swiatek, it seems, is having a difficult time processing what’s occurred.
“Honestly, when I was watching you winning the US Open in 2018 I wouldn’t have even thought I’d be playing against you in such an important match,” she said, addressing Osaka.
Believe it. Iga Swiatek has arrived. Early returns suggest she might just stay awhile. And if Osaka continues her major history, they’ll be a huge part of the ongoing conversation at the center of the sport.