Iga Swiatek shows steel in beating Kaia Kanepi to Australian Open semi-finals

The final point said it all. An 11-shot rally that started with a Kaia Kanepi serve and finished with Iga Swiatek’s racket somewhere other than in her hand. Poland’s world No 9 had spent the intervening 19 seconds stretching, sliding and almost slipping, but still somehow conjuring answers to each question set by her aggressor up the other end.

“Defensive” can mean all manner of things. An over-concern with self-justification. A means of driving a car safely. A negative way of playing football. In Swiatek’s case it was steely resolve, the bedrock of her three-hour passage to a second grand slam singles semi-final and first on a hard court.

The 2020 French Open winner was on the back foot throughout this finale of a point, just as she had been at many junctures over the course of three hours in 36C heat. Kanepi was sending down smash after smash and it was surely only a matter of time before one stuck. But when the Estonian landed a shot outside the tramlines, Swiatek’s pressure valve finally released, and with it went her racket, slung into the humid air inside Rod Laver Arena. An emotion-charged exclamation point on the longest match of her major career.

“I wasn’t even thinking a lot, I was just running,” Swiatek said. “I was actually thinking: ‘Where is like the biggest probability where she can hit the smash?’ It’s luck that you’re going to go the right way. There is that probability, but you never know what your opponent is going to do.”

Swiatek’s last two matches have been dogged examinations. Against Sorana Cîrstea in the fourth round on Monday she lost the first set and rallied to win in three. On Wednesday she repeated the feat against Kanepi, the unseeded world No 115 and, at the age of 36, the oldest quarter-finalist across both the men’s and women’s singles.

In the previous round Kanepi dumped out second seed Aryna Sabalenka in arguably the upset of the tournament, but here she found herself in the presence of a 20-year-old who would not go lightly, who saved eight set points before eventually ceding the opening set and then utilised old-fashioned grit to hold on at key moments in the subsequent two before eventually prevailing 4-6, 7-6 (2), 6-3.

Swiatek, who is now 5-0 in three-set matches at grand slams in which she lost the first set, returns to action on Thursday to face American Danielle Collins in the semi-finals. The American 27th seed shattered Alizé Cornet’s bid to make a first grand slam semi-final at the 60th time of asking, cruising to a 7-5, 6-1 win against the French player to continue her resurgence after surgery last year for endometriosis.

“It feels incredible, especially after some of the health challenges that I have had,” Collins said. “To be able to get back to this level and be able to compete the way I have and be as physical as I have has been so rewarding.

“I definitely feel more free [without pain]. I feel like I have solutions to be able to manage it when there are things that come up. I certainly feel a lot freer just not having to deal with the symptoms that I used to deal with, that not being a continuous issue that I’m dealing with on a daily basis.”

Cornet was resilient regardless of the scoreboard, but simply left her run too late and was still feeling Monday’s marathon win over Simona Halep. “Emotionally it was a lot to handle, I’m not going to lie,” she said. “But I felt pretty ready for this match today. Physically I recovered well. Mentally I was ready for another fight. I think the way Danielle was playing just didn’t help me at all. I couldn’t get into the rhythm. She was playing super fast on my forehand which I was not comfortable at all with.”

Collins is joined in the semi-finals by unseeded compatriot Madison Keys, who will challenge the world No 1 and home favourite Ash Barty on Thursday.

Swiatek was unfazed by the thought of facing world No 30 Collins. “I have played with some heavy hitters on this tournament already, so I feel like I’m feeling her game on my racket pretty well,” she said. “[Those] two matches showed me that even in tough moments I can come back, and I have skills to win matches even when they are really hard. “For sure it’s going be hard, and she’s in great shape – you can see that – and really confident. But I also feel that way.”

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