In six matches at this French Open, no one has come close to finding a solution to 19-year-old Iga Swiatek.
Not the No. 1 seed and former champion Simona Halep, whom Swiatek crushed in the fourth round. Not qualifier Nadia Podoroska, whom she routed 6-2, 6-1 in little more than an hour on Thursday in the women’s semifinals at Roland Garros.
The last player who will have a chance to stop her is Sofia Kenin, the 21-year-old American who won the Australian Open earlier this year and defeated Petra Kvitova 6-4, 7-5 in the second semifinal on this blustery afternoon on Philippe Chatrier Court.
Kenin had never been past the quarterfinals in a clay-court event until now. She was beaten 6-0, 6-0 in the Italian Open by Victoria Azarenka last month. But she has scrapped and worked her way through the draw in Paris, improving round by round and saving some of her finest work for the pivotal points against Kvitova, a powerful Czech left-hander who had won their two previous matches.
Swiatek does not even have a sponsorship contract with a racket manufacturer at the moment and has a surname that many people are still learning to pronounce (try Shvee-ON-tek). She is playing in only her seventh Grand Slam tournament and has yet to win a tour title, but she has leapt into the tennis stratosphere in a hurry.
“Basically I wanted to play this match as if it would be a first round,” Swiatek said on Thursday. “Because I didn’t want to think I was in a semifinal because it would stress me, so I just kept being aggressive like in the previous matches.”
No one has won more than four games in a set against her in Paris this year, and though she is unseeded and inexperienced, ranked just 54th, it will be hard to consider her a clear underdog when she takes the court on Saturday for her first Grand Slam singles final against Kenin, the No. 4 seed.
Kenin has not consistently hit the same sorts of high notes in the last two weeks as Swiatek, whose compact blend of offense and defense has been irresistible. But Kenin has played some deeply convincing tennis under duress, winning four matches in three sets and recovering from her failure to serve out the match against Kvitova at 5-4 in the second set on Thursday.
Kenin immediately broke Kvitova back and then held serve to reach her second major final of 2020.
“I’m just really fierce,” she said in her on-court interview after the match. “I’m just fighting for every point. I’m in the semis. They are not going to give it to me. I really have to go out and fight for it.
“I feel in the past I’ve always expected them to make mistakes,” she said. “Now I have the mind-set that I’ve got to take it, got to take the chance and take a risk.”
After her breakthrough season in 2019, Kenin has broken new barriers this year despite the five-month tour hiatus. She is 16-1 in Grand Slam singles play in 2020. But she is about to face another player rising very quickly.
“I’m kind of surprised really,” Swiatek said. “I would have never thought at this tournament I would play so good here, but on the other hand, I always knew if I was going to be in the final of a Grand Slam it would be the French Open. So I’m really happy. It’s a dream come true.”
Swiatek may end up playing two finals this year. She is in the semifinals of the women’s doubles with American partner Nicole Melichar. The last woman to win in both singles and doubles at Roland Garros was Mary Pierce in 2000.
Swiatek, who finished high school earlier this year, is the first Polish player to reach the French Open women’s singles final since 1939 when Jadwiga Jedrzejowska lost to Simonne Mathieu of France. Mathieu now has a court named for her at Roland Garros.
Swiatek and Kenin. have not played on the professional tour, but they have faced each other on the red clay in Paris. Swiatek beat Kenin 6-4, 7-5 in the French Open junior event in 2016 in the third round. Both have come a long way since then.
“I’m going to be quite nervous, a lot of emotions,” Kenin said. “But I have to figure out what I need to do against her. She’s playing great tennis these past two weeks.”