Swiatek on streak entering French Open, with Ukraine on mind

(AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

By ANDREW DAMPF

AP Sports Writer

ROME (AP) If there's been one point during Iga Swiatek's three-month unbeaten run that encapsulates why the top-ranked player has become nearly impossible to beat, it's surely a 19-shot rally that she won against Ons Jabeur in the Italian Open final.

The point showed off all of the elements of Swiatek's game, which explains why the 20-year-old Polish player is an overwhelming favorite to win her second French Open title when the clay-court Grand Slam begins on Sunday.

After climbing back from a 0-40 deficit and facing a fourth break point late in the second set of a 6-2, 6-2 victory, Swiatek really found her rhythm. She ran down two drop shots, retrieved a passing shot up the line - which landed on the line - and finally won it with a backhand stop-volley drop shot.

On display were Swiatek's heavy topspin forehand, her expert court coverage and swift movement, her hands and feel for the ball at the net, and - perhaps most importantly - her never-give-up attitude, which is so essential on clay.

"I kind of shifted my attitude from, 'Whoa, she's going to spread me around now,' to, `I'm going to get to every ball now and play every point till the last shot,'" Swiatek said.

Maybe even more telling was Swiatek's reaction after she won the point: Instead of celebrating, she immediately went and checked the ball mark from Jabeur's passing attempt, holding up her finger to the chair umpire to indicate that she thought the ball was out. That thought likely crept into Swiatek's head during the point, but she was able to compartmentalize and maintain her unrelenting focus on the task at hand until raising the issue after the point was over.

"I did everything that I can. I made her visit all the corners of the court," Jabeur said. "I know that Iga plays much better when you open the court, so maybe I should have stayed more in the middle and let her lose the point. I don't know. The thing is, I (hit) many more (different) shots in that point. She deserved to win - for sure."

Whether she has deserved to win or not, nobody has beaten Swiatek since 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko defeated her in a third-set tiebreaker on Feb. 16. She has won 42 of the last 43 sets she's contested.

If there were any questions about whether Swiatek deserved to be handed the No. 1 ranking when Ash Barty suddenly retired two months ago, that debate has subsided during Swiatek's 28-match winning streak.

The last player to win more consecutive matches was Justine Henin, who won 32 straight in 2007 and 2008. The all-time longest streak belongs to Martina Navratilova, who had a run of 74 in 1984.

"Iga is Iga," said Jabeur, who entered the final on an 11-match winning streak of her own. "She deserves to be here. She deserves to win matches like that."

During the women's final, a fan held up a sign that read, "Keep politics out of tennis," - an apparent reference to Wimbledon's decision to ban players from Russia and Belarus because of the war in Ukraine.

Since early March, Swiatek has been playing with a ribbon pinned to her hat featuring the colors of Ukraine's flag.

She called it "pretty weird" that some players have stopped wearing similar tributes to Ukraine, "because there is still war, there are people still suffering."

"I'm going to wear it until the situation is going to get better," Swiatek said.

With the war in Ukraine approaching three months, more than 6 million people have fled the country since Russian troops invaded on Feb. 24, according to the U.N. refugee agency. More than half of the refugees, 3.3 million, have fled to Poland.

During the trophy ceremony on Sunday, Swiatek made a reference to her family back home.

"For sure the war is affecting Poland a little bit more," Swiatek said. "It's something that I can't experience with them because I'm traveling all around Europe."

Swiatek added that she is planning to announce a new initiative related to the war.

"I for sure want to show my support to Ukrainian people," she said, "as every Polish person is doing at home."

More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Andrew Dampf on Twitter: www.twitter.com/AndrewDampf

Updated May 16, 2022