All good things come to an end, as Iga Swiatek discovered on Wednesday when Maria Sakkari not only took the first set in 22 off her at the French Open, but then defeated her in straight sets to bring the defending champion’s remarkable run to an end.
I had a pretty intense season. I played many of the tournaments, more than in my previous seasons. I'm happy with the results that I have, but also I'm constantly at work. For sure we're going to try to chill out a little bit, cool down, also find some perspective. Basically when I close my eyes, I only see tennis court and balls, so it's pretty tiring. For sure that fresh start after grass is going to give me a lot. Iga Swiatek
For the Greek, it was a personal best as she reached the semi-finals of a Grand Slam for the first time in her career, but for the popular Pole, it was a step too far.
Sakkari stunned the 20-year old, who was on a winning streak at Roland Garros of 11 matches but a right thigh problem appeared to affect her as she fell to a 6-4 6-4 defeat by 17th seed.
“Well, obviously I didn’t play my best tennis, that’s for sure,” Swiatek told reporters after the upset. “But Maria did a good job with playing at my forehand, which wasn’t working pretty well today.
“It’s good for her that she saw that. She picked a good tactic, for sure.
“All credit to her because she also made me actually feel bad. That’s what players do to each other. She did that better today.”
Sakkari has now defeated each of last year’s finalists in back-to-back rounds, having beaten 4th seed Sofia Kenin of the United States in straight sets in the round of 16.
She is one of two Greek semi-finalists, joining Stefanos Tsitsipas, who also booked his place in the men’s singles final four.
“I am the highest-ranked player, but the rest of the girls are playing extremely well,” Sakkari said. “The draw has changed so much, it doesn’t really matter who is the highest ranked in this tournament.
“We’re four very good players.”
Next up for Sakkari is unseeded Czech Barbora Krejcikova, who upset American teenager Coco Gauff, the No 24 seed, 7-6(6) 6-3.
The 25-year-old Greek, who has a British coach in Tom Hill, has been knocking on the door at the majors for some years but got so fed up with the game after the Italian Open in Rome last month that she took a Greek island break.
Hill admitted he was a little worried, but said: “I knew, one week off, she would be fine. At the end of the season she has about four or five weeks off, and after two days of hitting she’s hitting the ball amazing again.”
Sakkari made a nervous start, with Swiatek moving into a 2-0 lead, but the Pole also looked a little tight and they were soon back on serve.
Swiatek was not showing her usual clarity, hitting a lot of shots into the net, while Sakkari was beginning to dictate play with her powerful forehand.
After breaking serve at 4-4, the Greek held her nerve to serve out the set, and it was a glum-looking Swiatek who went to her chair at 2-0 down in the second to await the trainer.
The 20-year-old, who has also played four doubles matches this fortnight, went off court and returned with her right thigh strapped and, although she kept pace with her opponent from there, Sakkari did not falter, exposing Swiatek’s physical struggles,
“The past couple of weeks hit me yesterday [Tuesday],” Swiatek said. “I couldn’t do the physical recovery well because I was stressed.
“Days like that happen, and it’s normal. I couldn’t even sleep well yesterday. I slept for a few hours. I think I was feeling everything twice as much as I should. It was hard to rationally just see what’s going on.”
Sakkari is the favourite in Thursday’s second semi-final, against Krejcikova after the 25-year-old Czech overcame the yips on her service toss to defeat Gauff in a nervy encounter.
Both women were on 9-match winning streaks, having won titles the week before the tournament, but the outcome soon looked inevitable.
The disappointment for Gauff was evident as she made a poor start to the second, and she was unable to recover, smashing her racket forcefully on the court after a double fault left her 4-0 behind, and given a warning.
Krejcikova, better known as a doubles player and also through to her first major quarter-final in singles, quietly went about her business at the other end, showing no sign of nerves as the finish line approached.
Gauff battled to at least get on the scoreboard when Krejcikova did start to feel the occasion, seeing 3 match points come and go at 5-1, the last an open-court backhand that she put wide.
When Gauff saved 2 more match points and held for 3-5, it seemed like a dramatic turnaround might be on the cards, but the Czech took her 6th chance, holding her arms aloft.
“I never really imagined that I’m going to be standing here one day, standing on this court, especially singles,” The 25-year-old said. “Being able to win, already for me this is something I’ve never dreamed of.”
Her impressive achievement was followed by thoughts of Jana Novotna, the former Wimbledon champion who mentored Krejcikova for 3 years before her dying of cancer at the age of 49 in 2018.
“It’s amazing. It’s perfect,” Krejcikova said of matching Novotna’s best performance in the clay court Grand Slam. “I always think about her,. I’m always wondering what she would tell me after such a run.
“I’m just really sad I cannot actually hear her and she cannot really say anything.
“I get a lot of support from her family and from her friends, everybody that was around her.
“Because I know they knew her really well, I think they can actually give me the words that she would say, so it’s really helpful.
“I feel like she always knew that I can play at this high level, but it’s just sad that it didn’t happen earlier.”
As talented as Gauff is for a 17-year-old, her inexperience showed in her first Grand Slam quarter-final as she failed to convert 5 set points in the first set and then allowed the match to quickly get away from her.
“I’m obviously disappointed that I wasn’t able to close out the first set,” Gauff said. “To be honest, it’s in the past, it already happened.
“After the match, my hitting partner told me this match will probably make me a champion in the future. I really do believe that.”
The American has been in brilliant form on the clay and had cruised through to the last 8, but she faded badly against the former World No 1 doubles player, Krejcikova.
Meanwhile, Swiatek is taking the positives from Paris.
“This year I had more pressure on me, but also I did good because I think quarter-final is a good job,” Swiatek said. “I’m showing consistency.
“Obviously I know I can play better than today. Everybody has seen that. I know I can play heavier balls and everything. But days like that happen. I didn’t have day like that last year. Basically that’s why I won.
“But the most important thing right now is to take lessons of it, not let it happen next time.
“I don’t know if I even remember how to play on grass, so we’re going to see how that’s going to go.”
With Wimbledon less than 3 weeks away, Swiatek said her next big goal is to peak for the Tokyo Olympics, which will be played on hard courts at the end of July.
“[The Olympics] is my next goal because I don’t know how I’m going to play on grass,” she added.
“I’m not putting, like, any expectations or any pressure on me because really I just want to learn how to play on it. Probably I’m going to say that for few more years.”
Swiatek was a junior champion at Wimbledon in 2018, but she will be competing in the main draw for just the second time in her career.
“When I was playing that year [I won juniors], I was so angry that I didn’t win junior French Open that I kind of took it [out] on Wimbledon,” Swiatek said. “I think physically I was better than my opponents, than any junior player there.
“My motivation to win any Grand Slam, my anger at French Open, it really gave me a lot. Also the conditions were special this year because it was really hot. The ball was bouncing basically like on clay.
“Still in 2019 I didn’t have a good run on any of the tournaments on grass. Basically that’s why I just feel like I’m not consistent there. I’m not even consistent in, like, 10% really. I think it’s going to do me good to not have any expectations and just play.”
Before that, though Swiatek is still in the doubles tournament with Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and they face Irina-Camelia Begu & Nadia Podoroska for a spot in the final on Thursday.
Swiatek, who also reached the doubles semi-finals last year, dismissed any concerns that her decision to play both singles and doubles impacted her tournament.
“I can change so many things that really it’s hard to say what was the problem,” Swiatek said. “I don’t think it was doubles. As I said from the beginning, it actually helped me.”
Just turned 20, Swiatek has already pocketed titles at the Grand Slam, WTA 1000 and WTA 500 levels, and has won 23 of 29 matches this year and is one of only four players with multiple titles.
“I had a pretty intense season,” Swiatek said. “I played many of the tournaments, more than in my previous seasons. I’m happy with the results that I have, but also I’m constantly at work.
“For sure we’re going to try to chill out a little bit, cool down, also find some perspective.
“Basically when I close my eyes, I only see tennis court and balls, so it’s pretty tiring. For sure that fresh start after grass is going to give me a lot.”
She leaves an unlikely singles quartet at Roland Garros vying for the title in Sakkari, who is ranked No 18, Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (No 32), Krejcikova (No 33) and Tamara Zidansek from Slovenia (No 85), guaranteeing a new first-time Grand Slam champion on Saturday.
“All of us have been playing really good this year,” Sakkari, the 25-year-old from Greece, said. “It’s a little bit unfortunate the way the rankings still work, that there are some tournaments saved [from two years ago].
“You cannot really see what the real ranking is, so I think that’s why it’s a surprise for everyone.”