When Roland-Garros starts next month, Iga Swiatek will be trying to achieve something done by few women or men in tennis – win the same Grand Slam inside the space of less than a year.
The disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic means there will only be eight months between the 2020 edition of the French Open and the 2021 tournament. It means Swiatek’s storming success in Paris still remains fresher in the mind than perhaps it might normally, and adds even more intrigue to her progress on clay over the next month.
The 19-year-old is yet to play on clay this season, having opted to take an extended break after the Miami Open at the end of March. She returns to action at the Madrid Open this week on her favourite surface, where her record is an impressive 72-12 over the last five years. So what makes Swiatek such a difficult player to face on clay?
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At Roland Garros last year it was her heavy top-spin that caused most of the problems, especially from her forehand side. But she also found excellent angles on both wings, utilised the drop shot and served well.
Sofia Kenin, who was beaten 6-4 6-1 by Swiatek in the final, highlighted the "spinny forehand" as particularly difficult to deal with.
"She's got the really good forehand, the spinny forehand up the line," she said. "Really good backhand down the line…The spinny forehand, it obviously doesn't look like it's so difficult, but it has so much spin, it bounces up. It's obviously going to my backhand."
Simona Halep, who was brushed aside 6-1 6-2 in the fourth round, highlighted Swiatek's power as a big asset. "She was really dominating the match and was really aggressive...she hit all the balls very strong, very powerful."
The stats from Swiatek’s win in Paris are remarkable, especially given it was only her seventh Grand Slam main draw appearance and she had never previously beaten a top-10 player. She did not lose a set through seven matches, won 75 per cent of the games she played, and broke serve in 70 per cent of her return games.
She had already shown her quality on clay at ITF level – winning five of her seven titles on the dirt – but this was another level. Eurosport’s Mats Wilander said Swiatek’s game reminded him of Novak Djokovic and that she "doesn’t have any weaknesses".
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"I think Iga can dominate on all courts," Wilander told Eurosport. "She has a great serve, she obviously returns unbelievably well and when the ball is in play she hits with so much power and top spin that she is a different player than all of the other women. I haven’t seen a player as young as her as complete when it comes to constructing points and going forwards, taking the ball early."
Swiatek’s all-court game was on display earlier this year as she romped to another title without dropping a set in Adelaide. Swiatek said it was one of those "weeks when everything clicks" as she beat a befuddled Belinda Bencic in the final.
"I just couldn't figure out her patterns or her serve or anything at all," said Bencic after their first career meeting. "I never knew where she's going to play...it was overwhelming for me. She has a really big game. It's very unique. I struggled a lot today with how different she played. I just couldn't figure out, her patterns or her serve or anything at all."
So, how can Swiatek be countered?
A few months on from getting crushed at Roland Garros, Halep displayed a better, more aggressive, approach at the Australian Open, playing with more top-spin and power.
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"That was hard for me to control my shots," reflected Swiatek afterwards.
Garbine Muguruza also played on the front foot to beat Swiatek in Dubai earlier this year – "from the beginning, I was there to control the score, and was taking the advantage" – while Ana Konjuh outhit Swiatek with 40 winners to 27 at the Miami Open.
But those matches were on hard courts. Swiatek grew up on clay courts and showed at Roland-Garros how formidable her game can be on the surface.
What’s fascinating is how she approaches and deals with the next month. She has no points to defend in either Madrid or Rome, so has the chance to climb into the top 10 in the world with good results, but will then be the defending champion in Paris. There's also the added threat from Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty, neither of whom played the clay season last year.
World No 1 Barty has looked in strong form over the last month and could meet Swiatek in the round of 16 in Madrid. That would be an intriguing clash with potential pointers for Roland Garros.
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