NEW YORK -- Back in March, when Ashleigh Barty suddenly retired, Iga Swiatek was thrust into the role of No.1 -- at the age of 20.
She proceeded to win 37 straight matches, including the French Open. And now, after Saturday’s 6-2, 7-6 (5) victory against Ons Jabeur, Swiatek is the US Open champion.
Rather than being intimidated by that No.1 ranking, Swiatek, it turns out, was rather inspired.
“I needed to stay composed and focus on the goals,” Swiatek said during the trophy ceremony. “It’s New York -- it’s so loud, it’s so crazy.
“It’s really mind-blowing for me. I’m really proud I could handle it mentally.”
Now 21, the age of a typical college junior, Swiatek has become the consummate closer.
After dropping the opening set of a fourth-round match to Jule Niemeier, she rallied to win, finishing with a 6-0 flourish. She avoided a third set in the quarterfinals against Jessica Pegula winning a tiebreak in stone-cold fashion. Swiatek was down 4-2 in the third set to Aryna Sabalenka -- and won the last four games of their semifinal.
Against Jabeur, it came down to a tight second-set tiebreak -- Swiatek’s first in a final. Down 5-4, Swiatek fired a forehand winner that hit the line. When Jabeur’s forehand sailed long two points later, she had closed another deal.
Before this year, Swiatek was considered a stronger player on clay, but by winning three consecutive WTA 1000s on hardcourts in Doha, Indian Wells and Miami, she changed that narrative. This title in New York underlines her versatility. She’s only the third woman player in the last 15 years to win multiple majors in a season on different surfaces, joining Serena Williams and Justine Henin.
“At the beginning of the season I realized that maybe I can have some good results on WTA events,” Swiatek told reporters. “I also made it to the semifinal of Australian Open. But I wasn’t sure if I was on the level yet to win actually a Grand Slam, especially on US Open where the surface is so fast.
“It’s something that I wasn’t expecting for sure. It’s also like a confirmation for me that sky is the limit. I’m proud, also surprised a little bit, just happy that I was able to do that.”
Swiatek has won her past 10 finals in straight sets. This, after losing her first, at the age of 17 and ranked No.115, to Polona Hercog in Lugano, Switzerland. Going back to ITF events, Swiatek has won 17 of 18 career finals -- that’s as clutch as it gets.
Her final overall record in this year’s four majors: 21-2.
This is Swiatek’s seventh title of the year. She’s the first woman to do that since Serena Williams in 2014 and the first No.1 seed to take the title since Williams eight years ago.
To put this win in context, consider that Swiatek is the youngest woman to win her third major title since Maria Sharapova (20) in 2008. Swiatek is only the ninth player of the Open Era to win her third major before turning 22. The previous eight, her new peers at the top of tennis: Sharapova, Justine Henin, Serena Williams, Venus Williams, Martina Hingis, Monica Seles, Stefanie Graf and Chris Evert.
Moreover, the Roland Garros champion is the first player to win two majors in a single season since Angelique Kerber in 2016.
"I think in general [Swiatek just plays] better at the right moment, at the important points," Jabeur said in press. "She knows exactly what to do. I feel like she improved a lot from last year until the beginning of this year again."
During the first week, Swiatek sometimes seemed out of rhythm, out of sorts. What changed?
“For sure, the weather changed because it wasn’t that hot in the second part of the tournament. It was helpful. Sometimes we have many things actually to think about on court. Sometimes I wasn’t able to do it every time, so I was making a lot of mistakes. Then I finally accepted that I’m going to make those mistakes. It’s not going to be like on slow surface where I can build a rally, then be really calm and just finish.
“It’s going to be more risk and less control, for sure. So I accepted that. That was the thing that actually let me be more free.”
This was the championship final the last Grand Slam event of 2022 deserved, Ons versus Iga -- a worthy battle between the sport’s three-letter, first-name stars.
Swiatek, the game’s best returner, is the only player this year to break opponents’ serves more than half the time. In the first set against Jabeur, she scored three breaks in four games -- she landed all 19 of her returns in play, an absurd 100 percent. At the same time, Swiatek put 90 percent of her first serves in (19-for-20), winning three of her four service games.
Serving the first game of the second set, Swiatek encountered her first deuce game. Her response? She painted the lines from both sides, which brought a furious fist pump. In the second game of the set, Swiatek broke Jabeur for the third straight time.
And then Swiatek’s level dropped and Jabeur broke her in the fifth game to get back on serve. Swiatek, naturally, came back to break Jabeur for the fifth time in seven games.
Back on serve at 4-all, Swiatek faced three break points and somehow held for 5-4 on the way to the tiebreak.
The US Open, near the end of a long year, with all its atmospheric conditions, might be the toughest of the Grand Slam events to win. And in fact, given the impressive list of opponents, this was Swiatek’s statistically toughest road to a major title; the rank of her average opponent was 47, compared to 55 at this year’s Roland Garros and 78 for 2020 Roland Garros.
On Monday, Swiatek and Jabeur will be ranked, respectively, Nos.1 and No.2. They have scored the most victories on the Hologic WTA Tour over the past two years and are also one-two in the Race to the WTA Finals leaderboard. Both players were appearing in their second major final of the season.
But it was Swiatek who walked away with the bigger trophy and more prolific purse.
Upon receiving the $2.6 million winner's check, Swiatek got a laugh from the crowd in Arthur Ashe Stadium when she said, "I'm really glad that is not in cash."