Two of the games most exciting young stars, Iga Swiatek and Naomi Osaka, line up for the Miami Open presented by Itaú final on Saturday at the start of what promises to become a fine rivalry.
For now, I'm just taking it easy, and I know, just by playing well and, actually, showing good sportsmanship on court, the work is going to be done itself, because we are basically mostly watched when we are playing, you know? Iga Świątek
In their only prior meeting, Osaka, now a former World No 1 and 4-time Grand Slam champion, edged Swiatek, then an 18-year-old qualifier, in the 3rd round of the Rogers Cup in Toronto in 2019, in what proved to be a surprisingly difficult match, 7-6(4) 6-4, against a player ranked No 65 in the world..
“I remember playing Iga in Toronto, when she was first coming up and my immediate thought was, ‘Wow, this girl is really athletic’. Osaka said. “She’s sliding all around the place.
“I think it’s really amazing to see how far she’s come. She’s just so motivated.
“I know, when I won Indian Wells I was just really dead, and then they made me play Serena in the first round [in Miami]. I was, like, ‘Whoa, dude!’
“It’s just incredible to see she’s still in this tournament, and still fighting, and she’s going to be No 1 soon. It’s really cool. I think the WTA is definitely doing its thing.”
These days, Osaka’s ranking has dropped to 77 due to her absences off the tour last year because of mental health issues, but she has since sought help, and is making a statement come-back in Miami as the lowest-ranked and second unseeded woman to reach the final of this 37-year-old tournament, her first since winning the Australian Open in 2019.
The Japanese wept for joy following her come-back 4-6 6-3 6-4 win over Bencic, the No 22 seed here, just 2 weeks after an emotionally-fragile Osaka cried on court after being heckled by a fan during her 2nd-round loss at Indian Wells.
Swiatek, 4 years younger than Osaka at the age of 20, has since risen to the World No 1 spot, which she will take over from the now retired Ash Barty on Monday.
The Pole is riding the crest of a wave that has seen her win consecutive WTA 1000 titles in Doha and Indian Wells, while she is also the tour leader in matches won this season, 25, with just 3 losses.
Swiatek has not dropped a set in her 5 matches in Miami, losing just 22 games, and now has won 16 consecutive matches, 18 straight sets, in her bid to become the first woman, as well as the youngest, to win the first 3 WTA 1000 tournaments of the year.
“That was like my first night session on WTA,” Swiatek recalled of her outing against Osaka. “These matches were important because I felt like I’m doing progress, and I can actually compete against the best players because, in previous round, I won against Caroline Wozniacki, which was also pretty cool.
“I felt like I have nothing to lose. That was really freeing.
“My second match on the WTA Tour, when I felt I am doing a breakthrough, was against her [Osaka].
“Even though I lost that match, it inspired me to work harder because she was number one back then.
“Right now I feel, like, I am on a different level, so I can actually compete… We’ll see how it is going to go. I’m really excited.”
Both had to battle in the respective semi-finals, with Osaka finding a way past Olympic champion Belinda Bencic from Switzerland, on Thursday afternoon, and Swiatek claiming a 6-2 7-5 win over American Jessica Pegula in the night session.
Swiatek sailed through the opening set but had to fight back from an early break down in the second and, although she squandered 2 match points at 5-4, she sealed her win 2 games later.
Osaka fired off 18 aces, a season’s best, as she took out Bencic to reach her first Miami Open final, conceding only 2 first-serve points in the first set, but unable to convert when it counted.
The Japanese No 1, who had not dropped a set in the tournament, then lost her serve in the 3rd game and again in the 5th, but, after trading breaks early in the second, Osaka seized the momentum in the 6th game before riding out her win in the third.
“She had a really amazing service return – there were times I thought that I hit great serves but she just hit winners,” Osaka said of Bencic. “[I was] just battling my inner thoughts, and trying to know that I must play one point at a time, and adjust if I have to, but try not to overwhelm myself with my thoughts.
“I feel like if I was negative for a split second, I would have lost the match today,” added Osaka, who will play in her 4th WTA 1000 showpiece match on Saturday.
“I have to keep pumping myself up and I haven’t played as many matches as a lot of these other players so I just have to keep learning.”
Swiatek may have been thrust into the limelight following the shock retirement of 25-year-old Aussie Barty just 11 days ago at the start of the Miami Open, but she is fully deserving of being the 28th woman and first Pole to be No 1 when the official rankings come out on Monday.
The No 2 seed finished her semi-final match against Pegula, the tenacious 16th-seeded American from Boca Raton, close to midnight, and she is excited at the prospect of Saturday’s final.
“I am excited, for sure, but on the other hand, for me, the most important job is this is a match like any other,’’ said Swiatek, who could become the second Polish woman to win this event, dating back to 2012 when Agnieszka Radwanska won.
“I don’t want to change my routines. I don’t want to change my attitude because it’s been working out pretty well.”
Swiatek is attempting to become the 4th and youngest woman to capture the ‘Sunshine Double’ of winning Indian Wells and Miami, a feat accomplished only by Steffi Graf (in 1994 and ’96), Kim Clijsters (2005) and Victoria Azarenka (2016), all also members of the No 1 club.
She also is only the 5th woman to reach the final of both Indian Wells and Miami before her 21st birthday, joining Monica Seles, Serena Williams, Martina Hingis and Maria Sharapova on that illustrious list.
“I’m really proud, honestly,” Swiatek told reporters after defeating Pegula. “I mean, it’s kind of hard to catch up with everything.
“I try to use this streak as something positive, and something that’s going to give me a kick, but yeah, it’s pretty weird situation that I’m in.”
Osaka, who grew up in nearby Pembroke Pines, has got her mojo back, happily engaging with the media this week and, on the court, looking like the dominant player who owns a 3-1 record over 23-time major winner Serena Williams.
Both women will rise to the coming occasion, Swiatek having won 12 of the 13 finals, including ITF tournaments, she has played, while Osaka has won 7 of her past 8 finals, excluding a walkover.
Regardless of the outcome, Monday will be a major milestone for Swiatek, who is taking her new status as the WTA Tour’s new leader, very seriously.
“Well, I don’t know how me being No 1 or like my position, my success, actually if it changes anything at WTA, because they have been continuing good work they have done to promote tennis and women’s sports for a very long time,” Swiatek said.
“For sure, my goal from the beginning, when I started, was to make tennis more popular in Poland, and I’m going to, for sure, be focusing on that. For sure now I have more impact worldwide.
“But, honestly, I don’t want to put too much baggage on my shoulders, and I know handling this is something that’s pretty tough, so I’m going to give myself a little bit of time and continue what I was doing in Poland, and maybe someday, I’m going to feel strong enough to also be, like, a tennis representative in the whole world.
“But for now, I’m just taking it easy, and I know, just by playing well and, actually, showing good sportsmanship on court, the work is going to be done itself, because we are basically mostly watched when we are playing, you know?
“So I want to for sure be a good example there. I hope many young girls are going to pick up the racket because of that, and in future years, I’m going to see what my plan is going to be for that.”
Swiatek has always named Barty as her role model, and she could not have found a better one, in whose footsteps she now closely follows.
Before then, though, Swiatek and Osaka will face off for Miami honours on Saturday, with a lot riding on the final for each of them – the Pole looking to claim her newly-minted World No 1 status with a record-breaking win, while the Japanese is projected to move to around No 36 in next week’s rankings, and could return to the Top 30 if she can take the win.
Osaka has won 7 titles, 4 of which are Grand Slams, while Swiatek has won 5 titles, including 1 major and, whatever the result, this coming match-up is tantalising in so many ways as we herald in the post-Barty era with a sparkling new rivalry.