PARIS (AP) — Just over four years ago, in the first round of a small clay-court tournament in the Czech Republic, 95th-placed Iga Swiatek lost in three sets to 106th-placed Karolina Muchova.
It was the only time they faced each other, despite being frequent sparring partners.
On Saturday, the same two players will enter the Court Philippe Chatrier for a second match – on a much grander stage and with much higher stakes: the Roland-Garros championship. Swiatek is now ranked No. 1, where she has been for over a year, and is aiming for her third title at Roland Garros and her fourth at a major tournament.
Muchova’s career has been disrupted by various injuries so she is only ranked 43rd and not ranked but she has been at her best over the past two weeks especially when she came back after facing a match point to eliminate No. 2 Aryna Sabalenka in the semifinals on Thursday.
And Muchova did it with the same mix of old school and new school tennis that Swiatek remembers seeing up close when they first met in Prague in April 2019.
“I really like her game, honestly. I really respect her, and I feel like she’s a player who can do it all. She’s got great touch. She can step up the game as well,” Swiatek said. “She plays with that kind of, I don’t know, freedom in her movements. And she’s got great technique. So I watched her games and I feel like I know her game pretty well.”
Muchova does a bit of everything.
She is comfortable at the net. She will vary her speeds and angles from the baseline. She knows when to retreat and when to attack. She even hit more aces in the semifinals than her opponent, Sabalenka.
Muchova was asked if she had ever thought about changing her approach, playing more like other players.
“No, I never had that moment. I think I have it like that in everything in life: I don’t really want to be like the others,” said the 26-year-old from the Czech Republic. “It’s the type of game I love and believe in.”
It worked well enough to take her to a 5-0 record against Top 3 ranked women.
She was unaware of this statistic until a reporter mentioned it and asked if it might make her the favorite against Swiatek, a notion Muchova dismissed.
“It just shows me that I can play against them,” she said. “I can compete.”
there is no doubt.
Swiatek, however, presents its own challenges.
She, like Muchova, can play with nuance. She, like Muchova, knows how to build a point, play defense when necessary, attack when necessary. Her topspin forehand is as dangerous on clay as any shot from anyone else in women’s tennis right now.
That’s why Swiatek hasn’t dropped a set so far in the tournament. And why she is aiming for a second consecutive title and a third in four years in Paris.
Muchova has only won one WTA trophy. Swiatek had no tournaments when she made her first major final at the 2020 French Open aged 19.
So how has Swiatek, still just over a week shy of her 22nd birthday, changed since then?
“For sure, I feel like I’m a better player. The improvement, I feel, is everywhere, so I can’t really say (one area). Everywhere – like, at the level of tennis, mentally, tactically, physically, just having the experience, everything,” she said. “So, yeah, my whole life, basically.”
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