The champion is gone and, with her, the last pillar of stability for women French internationals draw. Iga Swiatek lost 6-4, 6-4 to a supreme and courageous performance from Maria Sakkari of Greece. Swiatek’s departure means this year’s tournament will see four Grand Slam semi-finalists for the first time battling for a first major title, with more tense and exciting uncertainty to come.
For four successful rounds, Swiatek had handled his title defense with class, overcoming many fiery opponents without conceding a set, only strengthening her presence as the tournament favorite as other top players fell. But when the fall came for the Pole, it was a logical continuation.
Sakkari, the 17th seed, was one of the most improved players on the women’s circuit. Together with her young English coach, Tom Hill, she has transformed her serve from an average performance into one of the best in the world.
It took a while for her self-confidence to grow to the point where she felt she could compete for the biggest titles. As she established herself in the top 20, the question that remained was whether she really had the courage to take the plunge. She took several this week.
For fleeting moments at the start of the meeting, the weight of the occasion favored the defending champion. But with the score at 4-4, Swiatek’s forehand collapsed after relentless pressure from Sakkari. The opening set culminated in a tense and difficult final showdown over Sakkari’s serve. She saved a breaking point with a brilliant second serve at 99 mph. After a long tie game, Sakkari closed the set with a winning backhand on the line.
The momentum continued to favor Sakkari in the second set, while Swiatek’s physical issues with her left thigh ultimately led to her taking a medical time out at 6-4, 2-0. Sakkari missed a double break opportunity as she led 3-1 and 15-40 on Swiatek’s serve. She had to wait several minutes during the medical time out that could have destroyed her momentum. Sakkari then had to serve the match against an opponent who was clearly ready to fight.
She handled everything with great professionalism. Sakkari took a 40-0 6-4, 5-4 lead behind a drop shot winner, ace and forehand that took the racket out of Swiatek’s hands. After being reduced to 40-30, the Greek slammed another 99 mph serve, which did not return. With her, she won the biggest victory of her life.
“I really enjoyed today,” Sakkari said. “Before going into the game, I sat by myself and talked to myself. I said, ‘You know what? It’s a very important game. But take advantage of it. It’s one of the best stadiums in the world so I had to do it.
Sakkari, the top-ranked player in the draw, will then face Barbora Krejcikova for a place in the final after the Czech beat Coco Gauff 7-6 (6), 6-3 in the first quarter-final. Krejcikova saved five set points in a first set she never really led until she won it, crushing four of those set points with daring, finishing groundstrokes.
Krejcikova’s story is unique, even in a sport that offers such a wide variety of routes to the top. Former No. 1 in doubles and two-time Grand Slam champion, she has enjoyed singles success in the order completely opposite to most. She is also a former protégé of the late Jana Novotna, the 1998 Wimbledon women’s singles champion, who is always on her mind. “I still think of her,” she said. “Every time I go out on the pitch, I get off the pitch, I always think of her. I always wonder what she would say to me after such a race, all those winning games and everything. I’m just really sad that I don’t. can’t hear it and she can’t really say anything.
Despite such frustration that she even gutted her racket in the second set as the game slipped away, 17-year-old Gauff left her first Grand Slam quarter-final on a high note. “I’m obviously disappointed that I couldn’t finish the first set,” she said.
“To be honest, it’s a thing of the past, it’s happened before. After the game, Enzo, my hitting partner, told me that this game would probably make me a champion in the future. I really believe it.