PARIS — It’s been so long since No. 1-ranked Iga Swiatek lost — 31 games in a row — and even since she gave up as much as a set — last time more than a month ago — that she could be forgiven if she couldn’t remember how to react when something went wrong on the tennis court.
Which is why it was worth watching as the 2020 French Open champion navigated a few tough spots in the third round at Roland Garros on Saturday.
It turns out that Swiatek didn’t panic or let thoughts of the end of that dominant run distract her in what would become a 6-3, 7-5 win over the hard-hitting Danka Kovinic of Montenegro.
“Think about all these statistics, it’s not really helpful. So basically I try to be very strict in my thoughts and really focus on…finding solutions,” said Swiatek, a Pole from 20 years. “The thoughts are there, but I accept it.”
Kovinic also got a glimpse too close for comfort to Swiatek’s predecessor at the top of the WTA rankings, Ash Barty, since retirement, in a 6-0, 6-0 loss at the Australian Open in January. .
After Saturday’s setback, Kovinic said she suffered from a nerve problem in her right shoulder and felt tingling in that arm and two of her fingers. She also said she made sure to deliver a message to Swiatek when they shook hands on the net.
“I said, ‘Keep going.’ It’s really great for tennis, for our sport, what she does. Obviously, she has something extra that we don’t have,” said Kovinic, 95th. “She has something special. What is it, I don’t know.”
Well, let’s try to answer. Swiatek’s service, for example, is solid but not particularly fast; his fastest Saturday was 108mph, 7mph slower than Kovinic produced. Swiatek’s groundstrokes are smooth, sure, but like anyone, they’re prone to wobble; his forehand was particularly problematic on a windy afternoon with temperatures in the low 60s Fahrenheit, which accounted for 17 of his 23 unforced errors.
Speed guns and stats, however, can’t explain two traits that stand out: an ability to stay in the moment and a willingness to think about getting out of a corner.
Early on, when a 3-0 lead dwindled to 4-3, Swiatek grabbed eight straight points to own that set. In the second, she lost four straight games to trail 5-4. Maybe it was time to think, “Uh, oh.” Instead, Swiatek adapted to Kovinic’s style of using trickery instead of trying to match power with power, and she reeled off the final three games to finish the job.
“Of course,” Swiatek said, “played a little smarter.”
Her next opponent is Zheng Qinwen, a 19-year-old Chinese who is ranked 74th and competing in her second Grand Slam tournament.
“I really want to play against her,” said Zheng, who was leading 6-0, 3-0 when Alize Cornet stopped playing with a left leg injury.
Cornet’s withdrawal drew boos from the Court Philippe Chatrier crowd, which the French player said ‘hurts more than my injury itself’.
“It’s unbelievable that people dared to boo me on the pitch when I had to give up the game, and it was because I was in pain,” Cornet said. “But sometimes the French public surprises me and not always in a good way.”
Cornet said she was injured in her previous match, a win over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko, and considered not playing at all against 19-year-old Zheng who was only participating in his second Grand Slam tournament.
“You can’t generalize things,” Cornet said. “There were only a handful of people in the stadium, so maybe they made a lot of noise. But it’s really too much when you see how much I gave on the pitch for so many years. I think it would have been a lot easier for me not to come on the court, not to put myself, to make myself vulnerable with this injury.
“So yeah, no, it’s a real pain because it’s unfair, and when things are unfair it hurts. But then again, most people are probably sad for me and understand what’s going on. is happening, but this bunch of idiots really, really, really makes you feel bad.”
The other fourth-round women are Jessica Pegula against Irina-Camelia Begu, who was fined $10,000 after she threw her racket and it bounced in the stands and brushed a child in the stands earlier in the week; Daria Kasatkina versus Camila Giorgi; and Madison Keys vs. Veronika Kudermetova.
Pegula and Keys are two of five American women still in the tournament.
Pegula, No. 11, whose parents own the NFL’s Buffalo Bills and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, and Swiatek are the only two of the top 15 seeds remaining in the women’s division.
“She’s kind of reached another level than all of us right now. Yeah, that’s kind of scary,” said Pegula, who needed 10 match points to close out her first-round victory and then eight. others in her next match, but on Saturday sealed a 6-1, 7-6(2) win over 2021 semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek on her first chance.
One more win each and Swiatek becomes Pegula’s problem in the quarterfinals.
“His athletic and defensive skills are really, really good,” Pegula said. “And then I think she’s become a lot more attacking this year. She’s been more aggressive when needed.”
Swiatek has won his last four tournaments and 48 of his last 49 sets; the exception came against Liudmila Samsonova in the semi-final in Stuttgart on 23 April. Swiatek’s last match was against Ostapenko, the 2017 Roland-Garros champion, who returned on February 16 in the round of 16 in Dubai.
She has won a total of 15 sets by a score of 6-0 this season, but Swiatek showed on Saturday that she can handle when the going gets tough.
“It wasn’t surprising, it wasn’t weird,” Swiatek said. “It’s not that I forgot how to play those kinds of sets.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.